THE NSA, METADATA AND OVERSTOCK.COM

Quite a while ago, I bought a titanium ring from overstock.com. You can guess one of the unintended consequences. Everywhere I went on the interweb, ads from overstock.com popped up. I bought a ring once. I'll buy a ring again, won't I? Google will make it easy for me.

I don't live on the interweb but I shop and I communicate with friends there. I have, in other words, surrendered segments of my privacy for convenience sake. Harsh words but they are accurate. Google knows more about me than anyone except my wife and, to be honest, there are things that Google knows about me that my wife doesn't.

It won't be long before face recognition software will scan me when I enter a store. Coupons that are tailored to my shopping history will be sent to my phone. There will be no bothersome lines at cash registers. My phone will be the equivalent of an EZ Pass.  I'll just walk with my purchases past a certain line on the floor and my bank account will be debited on the spot.

The retailer will have me in his/her database. The wholesaler will. The manufacturer will. My bank will use my purchase for its own nefarious purposes. And so on...

I can avoid the interweb ads for titanium rings fairly easily. Ad blocking software has kept pace. But what do I do about the metadata? Go off the grid? That's much harder than it sounds. Cathey thought that she was a relative unknown until I searched her...on the interweb. To REALLY get off the grid you REALLY have to work hard. So what's the Risk/Benefit Analysis?

I've done no reporting. But when you think about it, what are the odds that I'm going to make just the right phone call or email to just the right address using just the right key words in just the right order to raise a flag? Pretty long odds, I would wager. One must take into account the odd security-cleared Peeping Tom who, in a moment of pure ennui, decides that my communications might make for an interesting diversion. But again, long odds.

Yes, I know. It's the principle of the thing. Slippery slope. Fascism.

Nah, I don't buy it. Our politicians are already bought and paid for. Being true fascists would be too much like work.

EXPAT HEALTH INSURANCE FOR AMERICANS - PART 2

I tried calling two of the companies on my short list of three that met the requirements for medical coverage, repatriation, and return of mortal remains for a long-stay visa to France, Travelex and FrontierMedEx.

The first time that I called MedEx, the phone rang through with no pickup and no recorded message after the machinery said that it was sending me to an agent. I hung up, tried Travelex, and was put on hold while waiting for an available agent. When the recorded voice informed me that I would be called back if I left my phone number, I did. And Travelex did call back the next day...during a business meeting. It wasn't their fault but I couldn't talk.

I was disappointed that my first two calls went unanswered until I realized that I was calling during the Christmas travel season and a winter storm was rolling through the Midwest to the East Coast, disrupting flights from Chicago to New York. That's probably a good test of the systems at their worst. But OK. I'll give them a mulligan. (For any uninitiated non-golfers, a mulligan is a free do-over.)

A few days later, I called MedEx and Seven Corners.

I'm not going to go into the details of any of the plans that we investigated from any of the companies. I'm not their agent and the details might change by the time that you read this. Check out the websites. Do your due diligence.

I was on hold for five minutes at MedEx. The gentleman that eventually took my call was polite and knowledgeable. And the MedEx plan that seemed to make the most sense for us was basic, met the requirements for a long-stay visa, a coverage letter was available for visa applications, and the price was competitive.

A human being answered the phone immediately at Seven Corners. Wow. And when I was transferred to Customer Service, another human picked up right away, a pleasant and knowledgeable woman this time. She steered me to a particular plan that I hadn't considered and emailed me a link to the brochure while we spoke. Basic. Met the requirements. A coverage letter was available. Priced competitively. So Seven Corners noses ahead solely on the basis of customer service - as limited as my experience had been. But there's a catch.

By this time, I had spent a good deal of time trolling the travel insurance review sites.Those sites led me to other insurance companies. I dabbled but wasn't seduced by any of the new entries. Check out every site that can. Do your due diligence. I liked the tone of the Travelex reviews the best. They had sold the most policies, had the most reviews, and the reviews were generally positive. And they had called me back.

I finally found the time to call Travelex. I was on hold for four minutes waiting for an available agent. Not too bad considering the season. Again, the agent was pleasant and knowledgeable. (Maybe they all share the same phone room?) Need I say it. Basic. Met the requirements. Yada, yada.

Here are my conclusions after several weeks of internet investigation and several phone calls. These are insurance companies. They pay batteries of actuaries good money to determine profit points. Any plan varying significantly in price from plans with similar coverage would have to be viewed with suspicion. In the end, the choice comes down to comparing the nuanced differences of each plan, the look of the plan's website, your telephone experience, and your opinion of the opinions of internet reviews both from 'professionals' and from policy holders. (Who's to say how professionally disinterested the aggregated review sites are?)

I chose Travelex Travel Plus. I liked the tone of the reviews. The website was simple and utilitarian. Customer service, at least when a sale was on the line, was available and responsive to my questions. Travelex Travel Plus is a primary insurance, meaning that there's no waiting to determine if Travelex is first or second in line to pay the claim. No deductible for covered losses. And rental car insurance.
 
Keep in mind, this is bare-bones insurance. Full coverage, American style health insurance for expat Americans living in Europe costs three to five times what we'll be paying for Travelex Travel Plus. But we're in good health and we plan to begin checking out the French insurance climate both public and private from inside France as soon as we arrive. We can only hope that we'll be covered sufficiently for that first year while we sort things out.

 I'll post again on the topic when there's something newsworthy to report.


MANDELA, TWITTER AND THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

With Nelson Mandela's death and the celebrations of his life that ensued around the world, the Twitterverse exploded. The man was a criminal, say the social media trolls. A terrorist. We will not celebrate the life of a man who came to power over the bloody bodies of innocents. And they have their point. The ANC perpetrated violence that at times took lives indiscriminately. Ironically, those same trolls denigrating Mandela on electronic message boards are fond of quoting Jefferson's: The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.

If the privileged, slave-holding Jefferson was convinced that the relatively benign British rule over the Colonies was cause for war, and Jefferson certainly knew that war with the British would result in the spilling of innocent blood as well as the blood of patriots and tyrants, then how can we blame Mandela for using every tool in his grasp to end apartheid? 

Commentary in conservative media is much more nuanced. Mandela was a Communist, said the Wall Street Journal today. He was a card carrying Communist who only converted to capitalism when he could no longer depend on support from his Communist buddies who were in their last gasps of power. And of course, we have the photos of a smiling Mandela with Fidel Castro and other Commie bastards to prove Mandela's duplicitous nature.

I have done no reporting. I cannot look into Mandela's head or heart. But one thing is certain. Mandela was a patriot who had every right to fight the immorality and barbarity of apartheid. In that struggle, he would have been a fool not to accept the assistance of any country with a motive to ally with him. Were the motives of the French pure when they came to the aid of the American colonists during our war for independence? Probably not. The power struggle in Europe between France and England was longstanding and ongoing. Yet we laud Lafayette and rightly so. So how can we question Mandela over his choice to accept the aid of the Soviet Union and its clients, regardless of their motives? In the end, they held no power over him or over South Africa.

150 years after America abolished slavery, we elected our first black President. In its first election after apartheid ended, South Africa elected Nelson Mandela. The difference, of course, lies in the demographics. In America, African-Americans were and are in the minority. In South Africa, apartheid  kept a white minority in power. Brutally. The fight against apartheid was a noble one by any standard. We celebrate the life of the man who put the struggle behind him and healed his country through reconciliation.

EXPAT HEALTH INSURANCE FOR AMERICANS - PART 1

Cathey and I knew from the beginning that health insurance would be a cause for concern as we prepared to move to France. The quality of care is not the question. European healthcare outcomes lead the world. We've had personal experience and we were impressed. But in order to qualify for a long-stay visa, the first step to obtaining the permanent carte de sejour we will have to present proof at the French embassy in Washington that, among other things, we will not be a burden to the French healthcare system for the entire length of our stay unless and until we qualify for that system.

Medicare benefits do not extend beyond America's shores. We will have to buy private insurance.

The French are relatively clear about the requirements. You need proof to their specifications that you are covered for medical, evacuation and repatriation expenses to the tune of $40,000. You can read more in the health insurance section on the French consular website HERE. The article even names several companies which will provide the required proof. It all seems rather straightforward until you remember that the French are masters of bureaucracy. And Cathey and I are both 65 years old, the age at which rates for new enrollments can be crushing if available at all. Although we're in reasonable health, there will be visits to doctors. We take prescription medications - cholesterol maintenance and such.

This is serious stuff. I began my investigations.

First, I searched the companies listed on the consular website. Then, I clicked on advertisements on expat message boards, on the websites of French real estate agencies, and on travel blogs. Finally, I began to search - on three different engines - a variety of phrases: expat health insurance, expat medical insurance, health insurance France, medical insurance France, international health insurance, international medical insurance, travel health insurance, travel medical insurance...  

Instead of recounting the boring details of my landings on sites of all sorts, I'll summarize.

There appear to be two tiers of insurance coverages available. The top tier policies are similar to a decent American full-coverage policy with the addition of the evacuation and repatriation riders. You can add vision and routine dental for a price. Higher deductibles lower the premium. Pre-existing condition? Read the fine print and hope for the best. I've been quoted between $8,000 and $12,000 for the two of us for a calendar year. Too much for us. One major international agency quoted $16,000 annually with no deductible, $8,500 annually with an $8,500 deductible. I don't care if the coverage included haircuts, manicures, pedicures and high colonics on demand. Too much for us.

The second tier is where the action is. Both sliding deductibles and/or sliding lifetime limits affect premiums. While the top tier policies offer limits in the millions of dollars, second tier policy lifetime limits can be low as $50,000 or higher than a million. The deductible may be per incident rather than cumulative or there may be no deductible at all. Purchasing the policy sufficiently ahead of your departure date may buy you coverage for the relapse of a controlled pre-existing condition. Rental car insurance can be a throw-in. Read the fine print and hope for the best. We've been quoted as low as $3,200 for the two of us for a calendar year for the no-frills, basic coverage that we hope is all that we'll nee

I've narrowed the field down to three companies through my internet research, two from the French consular site and one that caught my eye as I was investigated them. I will not detail the intricacies of their policies, each to the other. I am not their agent. See for yourselves.

Travelex Travel Plus
FrontierMEDEX TravMed Choice
Seven Corners Reside Worldwide

PLEASE DON'T TAKE THIS AS AN ENDORSEMENT OF THE THREE INDIVIDUALLY OR AS A GROUP. We have made no purchases. There may be other horses in the race yet to be considered. But I'm making calls and I'll be making up my mind soon. And I'll be keeping in mind that it's the Christmas travel season and there's a good-sized storm brewing. Let's see who has the staff necessary to keep the phones answered.

When I make up my mind, I'll post again.









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