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Why I fail at blogging 2: Work

31 Jul

I work.

My work is nothing stunning: my official title is ‘Collections Coordinator.’ This is shorthand for “calls insurance companies to try and convince them to give us the money they owe us for serving their members.” The up side to this job is that it is better than Patient Advocate (“gets screamed at by patients who do not want to pay their bills”) because I am calling other customer service agents who, while they are not necessarily obligated to be nice to me, are at least not allowed to raise their voices.

It also means that I get to talk to people from all points on the map. Many are in India, of course (“Yes, hello ‘Mark’, what’s your real name?”) but not all. There are the fairly laid back ladies who answer the phone for an insurance based in Chicago, but the call center is in Jamaica. I call a few Florida-based insurances, and while I’m fairly sure the person on the other end is not actually in Cuba at the time of the call, many of them were recently. Calling Texas, likewise, is similar to calling directly to Mexico. And then there’s California, where you’re likely to be speaking to someone native either to China or JUPITER.

The reps from Jupiter have barely any accent at all.*

Of course, this is not the extent of my job. My job description includes such details as sending money back to insurance companies when they sent it to us in error. And then there are the details that are not strictly in my job description. As my team lead put it earlier this month, I wear many hats. You may also call me a jack-of-all-trades, or the department bitch. To date, no one has called me the department bitch despite the fact that I am capable of living up to that description in more ways than one. I think this is because they do not want to have to do my jobs.

Behold, a typical month amalgamated into a single day.

I rise early, though early for me is later than the entire rest of my department, and stride into mine own personal wind tunnel at or before seven thirty in the morning. My cubicle is conveniently located close to the men’s room and equidistant from all women’s rooms that are not cordoned off in the executive hallway. It is also directly beneath the air conditioning vent, which means I enjoy a constant temperature of approximately seventy degrees with a strong breeze year-round.

I am a trusted employee, so I am the one to whom my supervisor delegated the running of daily and monthly performance reports for my department which she simply does not have the time to run. These I send out via mass email each morning with as much peppy wit as I can muster in order to inject some small dose of amusement into the dreary, frustrating, but still better than Patient Advocate lives of my fellow collectors. No sooner have I settled in to my fleece jacket to begin my own work on this amalgamorning than my supervisor approaches.

“Hi,” she offers meekly, which tips me off to exactly what she is going to ask. “Do you think you could do data entry on Thursday? I hate to ask, but the entire department has dying relations and I don’t want to make them come in…” That she asks me is natural, since data entry is my native department, and I still remember many of the strange and arcane rituals we practiced there despite having left its less-than-fertile lands several years ago. She also knows I am not really able to say no, since there is no one else who knows how to do the job, and what am I going to say? No? Can’t, have to collect? Would prefer not to go home with mush brain that day? Plead sudden blindness?

“It’s fine, I’ll be happy to do it.” The answer is that I will lie politely as is good and proper in a business environment.

“Oh thank you,” she beams, relief clear on her face. I have spared her the horror of having to learn the system herself, and earned a couple more brownie points for my stockpile. “Wow, it’s really cold over here.”

“Yes,” I agree, “it is.”

An hour later, my team lead calls. “Could you come over here?” she asks. “I’m having a problem with my computer.” I’ve been IT first aid since I entered the department, and its actually one of the hats that I like. I rise and wander the ten yards over to her desk, reaching it before her phone has actually touched the hook. “I want to make this picture my background, but it’s small, and if I make it big, it looks bad. How can I make it big, but look like this?” My team lead, I should note, is a very intelligent woman, but like many people, treats computers as though they are some magical being that defies normal rules.

“That file is 100 x 200 pixels. Your screen resolution is 1024 x 800. There is no way you can make it look good at a larger size.” I pause, considering for a moment when her gaze is disbelieving. “It doesn’t have enough data to fill in all the little details,” I offer, and this is both sufficiently simple and explanatory that she nods.

“By the way, were your vacation hours correct?” she adds, off topic, because she is good about keeping up with department issues. “Some of us did not get hours when we made the transition to the new payroll system.”

“Well, you might have maxed out.” I assume this as a possibility because, like many of us there, she almost never takes a day off. “How many hours do you have in your bank?”

I proceed to explain to her how the time off accrual works, and what happens when one has accrued a year and a half’s worth of vacation days. That she has not read the employee manual in the same detail as I have is not that large a surprise; she focuses on the job, I focus on the employment. What is a surprise is later when she asks me to explain it again in email to our supervisor, who then forwards the explanation to the entire department. There is a quiet percussive fanfare and a small shimmer of light: I have gained the HR hat achievement.

I add that hat to the precarious stack upon my head and slip my gloves back on before turning back to my work. It won’t be long, though, before one of my comrades-at-arms will shuffle over from ten feet away to deposit a two-inch stack of papers in my box for medical records to be scanned for electronic storage. Of all my tasks, this is the most akin to my humble beginnings of data entry, but this has a subtle perk: I get to spend ten minutes by the laser printer, basking in the three-hundred-fifty degree glow of the fuser assembly.

“Brr! It’s cold over here!” my coworker will exclaim.

“Yumph,” comes my muffled reply from within my scarf. “Ih innh.”

*It is important to note that I do not bear any animosity toward immigrants. Except those bastards from Jupiter, lazy jerks.

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Reason #1 why I fail at blogging: Class

3 Jul

A few tips on teaching college-level courses:

1) When signing up to teach a class that trains students for a particular exam, do make sure you’ve passed said exam long before the class starts. Do not register to take the test the day before the class begins. You will fail it, and then the college will have to scurry to find a replacement teacher. You will send out an apology email that your students receive while they are actually in the class you are not qualified to teach, and despite your vague “emergency” excuse, your students will know what happened. Your replacement will tell them.

2) When teaching a class as a replacement, do be awesome. Do have more experience than most of your students have years out of diapers. Do repeat phrases like “Plug and Play–we used to call it Plug and Pray,” that manage to make you not sound like a relic, but like someone who knows what the hell he’s talking about, and my god they were going to let someone who hadn’t even taken the test yet teach us, really?

3) When teaching an online course over 8 weeks in the summer, do be a slavedriver. Do encourage your students to work ahead, and show genuine disappointment when they fall behind. Do be able to comment on the quality of the book, as you helped edit it. In essence, do everything that will make your students who took an online course with some other schmuck who didn’t give a rat’s ass go “oh, so online courses can actually be worth something. Sweet.”

I’m three weeks into my summer online course, which is laid in stark contrast to my first online course. As noted above, the teacher is engaged and quick about grading and helped edit the textbook and is whipping us like sweet cream. It is genuinely hard work, which also lies in stark contrast to the classes I took during the spring semester. Part of the awesome replacement teacher’s awesomeness was that he looked at all the labs and stuff that our original teacher had planned and said “Screw that, just do the quizzes.” And you know what? We still learned all the stuff.

That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t need to do some more studying before taking the certification exams for which those classes trained me. I have a practice test voucher which I need to start using before June ends, and a voucher for the certification exam proper to save me $200 per test that does, sadly, need to be consumed three days before my final exam for my current class is due. Please do the math. I have not done this much studying since actual college, during which time I worked approximately four hours a week for pay rather than the 40+ I work now.

But ah, whining about work is a post for another time.

On Health Insurance, Part 4

8 Jun

And now an article for which I will actually have to cite some sources, though many of them will be Wikipedia anyway:
A Brief History of US Health Insurance

Health Insurance has only been a thing for like ninety years or so. There were types of disability and accident insurance before that, but none that were really focused on paying your medical bills. And why would you need to? When your medical services consist of a) the local doctor who never went to school for this, but watched over the shoulder of the previous town doctor for a few years, b) the local apothecary who went out and picked some useful herbs and ground them up for your use, or c) the snake oil vendor who just swept through town, your medical bills aren’t really going to be that high. The snake oil jerk is ripping you off, yes, but all three of those men just need to feed their families, really. They don’t have loans to pay off or insurances to keep up themselves, so they’re not charging you arms and/or legs.

The problem, really, was the twentieth century, or maybe the tail end of the nineteenth. That’s when doctors and science got together and said, hey, maybe we could, I dunno, figure out how to actually fix stuff instead of just plopping leeches on people. Their marriage gave birth to schools of medicine, modern hospitals, tests and treatments. Which is great! But the downside is that all this stuff costs money. Your diploma’d doctors and clean, state-of-the-art hospitals need patients on tables and in beds in order to get paid so they can pay off all their bills, and if you’re only getting the desperately ill in there, that’s not really a steady stream. And why would someone who’s not desperately ill risk a bill that would take them decades to pay off?

So in 1929, this dude at Baylor University Hospital had an idea. He noticed that people will end up spending significant amounts on things that can be nickeled and dimed out of them, like cosmetics, but end up spending less on healthcare because it’s a big chunk. So he thought, hey, let’s break that down for them. So Baylor University Hospital went to a local teacher’s union for a pilot program: The teachers paid 50 cents a month (which, in 1929, was actual money) and in return, they could walk into the hospital and get whatever healthcare they needed. And it was a good deal all around: the hospital got a steady stream of income, and the teachers got steady health care.

1929 may be a year that you remember from history class. Maybe something about October? A Black Friday that does not refer to the day after Thanksgiving? Yeah. The Great Depression really made this whole little health insurance concept catch on across the country, because suddenly no one wanted a huge honking hospital bill. So as hospitals across the country started taking a page from Baylor’s book, the newborn health insurance got a name: Blue Cross.

Yeah, that one.

World War II had a big hand in making things the way they are today, too. During the war, not only goods but wages were rationed; some industries were under government-imposed wage freezes, while at the same time requiring increased production and shipping a big chunk of the workforce overseas. So how did factories attract workers? Side benefits such as–you guessed it–healthcare insurance. Suddenly it’s a profitable thing, which meant that commercial insurance companies were getting into the act, so healthcare insurance just explodes in popularity.

Like with most good things, the government didn’t pick up on it until late in the game. Medicare was legislated into existence in 1965 after having first been proposed by President Harry S. Truman in 1945. The reimbursement schedule was originally kind of loose; they’d pay sort of randomly based on what the doctors billed them, and the doctors could then demand that the patient pay whatever the government didn’t. Things didn’t get organized until almost 20 years later.

Remember the CPT codes I talked about last time? The AMA created those in 1966. Originally they had nothing to do with getting paid; they were just a way to standardize terminology for recording purposes and so doctors knew what the hell other doctors were talking about. The government created the HCPCS coding in 1978 to do pretty much the same thing as well as allow for procedures the AMA hadn’t dealt with yet, and then in 1983, Congress smushed them together and said “okay, physicians, we’ll pay you based on these codes for Medicare part B.” Part A–the hospital coverage–also got a new reimbursement system then: the hospital gets a lump sum based on the patient’s diagnosis, regardless of how much or how little it actually costs them to treat the patient. The private healthcare market pretty much followed suit, and that’s, roughly, how we got the billing system we have today.

Information credits:
You shouldn’t be surprised this spawned from an NPR story. I also mentioned Wikipedia, and sure enough, I used two articles from there. The internet also granted me this ten year old article about CPT coding, this historical overview of insurance, and this article that gave me a bit more Medicare insight.

Next time: I get to use that Politics and Religion category, woot.

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

2 Jun

No post this week about healthcare; one more of those to go, though, before I stand up and have a political soapbox moment about it. I bet you’re looking forward to that.

In the meanwhile, I’m existing for a week in the wilds of Northern Wisconsin while my husband and his family fish, and I do not, because I do not fish. This means considerably less internet access–I can only log on here in the resort’s lodge, which gets old after a bit. Naturally, this has its up side and its down side; the down side being that I am unable to do large swaths of what I normally consider my recreational activities as well as considerable chunks of the studying I desperately need to do for my A+ certifications.

The up side is that, without the internet addiction to feed 24/7, I’m free to delve back into the addiction of my younger days: reading. It is with great joy each year that I wander into the library in search of the delicious fruit that I shall savor on my week of seclusion. Last year, I devoured the entire unabridged Count of Monte Cristo with a day to spare. It was wonderful.

So what am I reading this year, apart from my giant textbook? Well, I’ve traveled from 1800s France to the future, mostly. In the car up, I finally finished Sourcery by Terry Pratchett, a book that I started a year and a half ago and lost under the bed when I was halfway through. I felt it was important to finally bloody well finish it before I started on my new projects, and it gave a nice, pleasant sort of fantasy start to what is not at all a pleasant fantasy menu.

The trip’s reading begins properly with Feed by Mira Grant. This is a book about which falconesse has drooled and moaned a good bit, and I thought it prudent to follow her wise zombie literature advice. Now that I’ve finished it, I can safely confirm that her enthusiasm was well merited. This book, like the shambling zombie who appears in the first few pages, did not grab me properly until it had spent three quarters of its girth lulling me into a false sense of security regarding its predictability. Once it had me by the sweater, though, it did not let go, and I was unable to get free, until, sobbing and mindless, I finished the last page. That includes the teaser first chapter of the second book, which the bookstore in town blessedly had in stock since it came out THIS WEEK, and I am currently about four chapters in. EEEE.

After that, I moved on to The Stars My Destination by Alfred Besker. This one is a book (say it with me) that I heard about on NPR. It was originally published in 1956, but remains relevant to this day as an inspiration to active sci-fi writers. In a nice throwback to last year, it steals much of the frame of the plot of Count of Monte Cristo, but with vast gulfs of difference. It took me a long time to get into this book, perhaps partly because I did read the Count last year. I adored Edmond Dantes for his sharp wit, his bright mind, his subtlety and guile. Gully Foyle, the protagonist of Stars, has none of these. What Dantes gets through charm and trickery, Foyle gets through brute force. I hated him and wondered at the praise for the book until the second to the last chapter. Those last pages made the whole thing worthwhile, and I understand now why Neil Gaiman wrote so adoringly of it in the introduction. Read it, for the love of all things scifi, read it.

Finally, I’ve got a book of short stories, primarily by H.P. Lovecraft. I was inspired to this length when, after years of encountering reference after reference to the old god mythos, I finally consumed a story that actually made it disturbing and frightening: Ruby Quest. (If you’ve never enjoyed that story, I recommend it: you can find a flash version of it that someone put together here if you play with the allowed ratings–it’s gory at parts.) Anyway, I decided it was darn well time that I figured out what the heck was up with Lovecraft proper, so I’m going to flip through those stories and see if I can sleep at night afterward.

And if I still have time after that? Well, I never did actually read the chapter on printers, so it’s probably time I did so.

On Health Insurance, part 3

27 May

It’s been a while, and before I start writing about my new field of questionable expertise, I have a few more posts about healthcare to churn out. Today’s topic? Breaking the Code: understanding what the hell gets your doctor his money. Every claim that your healthcare provider files with your insurance is going to be covered in codes, and if you need preauthorization or a referral, you might need to know what some of those codes mean so you don’t spend the next seven months wrestling with customer service representatives. That kind of stress is only going to send you back to the doctor, after all, and then the whole things starts all over again.

Place of Service code: This code is less significant than most, and you’ll likely never need to know the codes themselves, just the places they represent. But it’s occasionally important to know where your service is supposedly taking place. For the most part, your service will probably be submitted as an Office or Facility place of service. However, if you’re getting home healthcare, place of service (you guessed it) Home, then you may need to get extra special authorizations, because your insurance hates paying extra for someone to help you out at your house. This is something to keep an eye on if your claim gets denied after you were told you didn’t need to get an authorization.

ICD-9 code: We’re actually moving along toward ICD-10 now, but that’s beside the point. ICD stands for International Classification of Diseases, and for most medical claims, there’s going to be one of these. This is also known as a diagnosis code. Any time you go to the doctor for anything that’s wrong–you have the sniffles, or heart palpitations, or you’re bleeding internally–there’s a code representing that owie, no matter how big or small.

Okay, so your illness becomes a little string of numbers. How is that important? Well, it may affect your insurance coverage in several ways. First off, if you’re going in for your annual physical, chances are that it’s covered in a special way as part of preventative care. The trick? If you also mention that your elbow hurts, and your doctor puts that down as an ICD-9 on your physical visit claim? Then it’s no longer preventative care, and you’re gonna have your deductible come bite you in the butt. Your diagnosis may also limit the types of care that you can get; your insurance may have limitations on what it thinks is “medically necessary” as far as tests and treatments for certain diagnoses. A bizarre example? If you have Iowa Medicaid, and you have tachycardia (785.0, rapid heart rate in layman’s terms), you’re not covered for any outpatient heart monitoring.

Well, it’s weird to me.

CPT or HCPCS Code: For every type of office visit, every test, surgery, or piece of medical equipment, there’s got to be a CPT code or HCPCS code. This is a code that corresponds to a description that explains what the heck your provider is doing that he or she or they deserve(s) to be paid for. Now, there’s a lot of letters involved here. You’ve got your Common Procedural Terminology and your Healthcare Common Procedural Coding System. Both of them claim to be common, and both of them largely duplicate the other. The difference here? One of them is published by CMS, The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. That’d be your HCPCS, and CMS is a government agency, which means HCPCS belongs to the people. CPT codes, however, are published by the American Medical Association. They’re copyrighted by them too, which means that they can charge you for using them. That’s right. The AMA owns part of your medical claim. Sadly, guess which list is more frequently used?

Why do you need to know about this code? This is really the most important code on the whole claim, since it’s the whole point of submitting the claim. And since codes can be very similar in number and description but have very different requirements as far as preauthorizations or coverage period, if you’re getting a major procedure done, you may want to call ahead to the provider and get the procedure code they’ll be using, then use that to check with your insurer about what enchanted rain dance you may need to do beforehand in order to get the money gods to shower down funds upon your doctor.

Really, that’s today’s whole lesson. When in doubt, get the code and call your insurer. Your provider may call and verify your benefits for you if they’re really awesome, but chances are your insurance will be a bit more attentive to you since you’re the one giving them money, not merely taking it away.

Flunk Day WOO

13 May

Such was my GTalk message this Monday when Hillary messaged me. “Flunk Day?” she asked. And when I explained, she notified me it would make an excellent blog post. So, in the spirit of Flunk Day, I promptly procrastinated for four days.

I’ve previously written about my alma mater, and as the concept of Flunk Day is inextricable from the culture of the college, I feel at liberty to give it a little more background here. Knox is a small liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois, a farmland-encrusted midwestern jewel that has a few significant items to its name:

  • It is the birthplace of poet Carl Sandburg and hosts the community college named for him.
  • It has railroads out the wazoo. It is a true fact that if you are talking to a student at Knox on the phone, at some point during the conversation you’ll go “what’s that rumbling in the background?” and they will have no idea what you are talking about because they have learned to tune out the constant noise. On account of the two actual train lines that intersect in town (the Amtrak line from Chicago to points west and the BNSF line), they have a festival in June that includes a huge model railroad shows.
  • Despite being in the middle of what should be gun-toting God-fearing farmer country, it has long been a haven for pencil-necked liberals. In addition to Knox, it also was home to Lombard College for nearly 80 years, a college so liberal it was initially called the Illinois Liberal Institute.
  • It contains a National Historic Landmark: the last remaining site of an 1858 debate between two US senate candidates: Stephen Douglas, and a slender fellow by the name of Abraham Lincoln. The site? Old Main on the Knox College campus.

The Knox calendar is an unusual beast. For starters, they do not do semesters; rather, it is trimesters. Starting after labor day, the first ten-week trimester runs to Thanksgiving, whereupon there is a six-week break until just after New Year’s. Then it’s ten more weeks until mid-March, and a third ten weeks through the end of May. It’s a nice schedule because things change more often, and since you only have three classes per term, you get to focus more on each one. The down side? No holidays. I used to have friends who’d get your Columbus Day or your Martin Luther King Jr. Day off, but I’d be stuck in class regardless. It was a little grind-heavy sometimes, but it was necessary to cram all the classwork into ten weeks. More importantly, though, it was necessary to make Flunk Day the most anticipated day of the year.

According to the wiki that my college apparently now has, Flunk Day is a hundred-year-old tradition, which means it far predates the trimester system that I think may actually have been instituted while my mother was attending in the late sixties. In any case, Flunk Day is a spring term holiday of sorts, and even were it not an amazing event, it’s your one day off as a Knox Student, so you value it very much.

Flunk Day is a closely guarded secret. It works like this: The administration picks a few potential days in the term that would be feasible Flunk Days. It’s not an easy thing to schedule during the busiest term as far as events go, but it’s important that there be several candidates. They’re all closely held secrets, but you can be sure it’s not going to be a Friday, so that’s one fifth of the possibilities cut out right there. The aim is to plant Flunk Day on a sunny, beautiful spring day when no one would want to be in class anyway, and make it a huge bonus.

For starters, classes are canceled. You’re all going to be woken up at 5AM by a bunch of drunken seniors, but you might not want to get out of bed yet, because Flunk Day false alarms are common, and you have to wait until 6:30 for the official email anyway, so go back to bed. Let someone else dig the mud pit in the quads, and hope no one pees in it before you get there. If you’re still in bed at 8, of course, the music’s going to wake you up. It’ll be blasting from each of the frat houses and from the amps on the quad, a shadow of the real band that will be there just before sundown. In between, you’re ten again and it’s the county fair. Maybe there’s a bouncy castle. Maybe there’s a mechanical bull. There might be karaoke, or an obstacle course. There’s probably frisbee in spades, and every meal is a picnic.

Did you check your mail yet, by the way? You’ve got a few special items. First, you’ve got the Flunk Day issue of the student newspaper, always a laugh even if you’re sober. You’re probably not, though; you’ve also got an official Flunk Day plastic cup emblazoned with this year’s theme. No one’s going to ask you what’s in it. Just don’t get alcohol poisoning (have you figured out yet why Flunk Day is never a Friday?). You’ve probably got some other toy or two; maybe a superball or a mini frisbee, just something colorful and cheap to throw around that you might find days later in the grass and smile. None of these things are going to make Flunk Day for you, though. You’re going to make it for yourself.

I’m proud to say I remember every one of my four Flunk Days, even Freshman year when I started the day with three After Eights and a shot of peppermint Schnapps. I took these in the span of ten minutes, and please keep in mind that while my driver’s license says I weigh 105, I have never in my life been that heavy even in winter clothing. My future roommate found me at the bottom of a hill giggling at the sky after breakfast. I assured her I was fine, and indeed I was; far from passing out or getting ill, I recall that Flunk Day as sharply and pleasantly as any of them.

Knox is a very tight-knit community. Even after you’ve graduated, you’re still part of it. And that’s why, not long after the music is blaring and the liquor is flowing forth into the bacchanalian festival of spring, all alumni on the mailing list get notice that real life ought to be postponed for the day.
WOO!

And so it is that one fine spring day per year, you’ll find me along with thousands like me giving a wistful smile out the window and pondering the feasibility of a mud pit at lunch.

Magical Mortgage Madventure

30 Apr

Come with me, children, and journey into the magical world of mortgage refinancing. Oh, what an epic tale of endless adventure I shall weave for you!

A little background first.

Four years ago, my husband and I bought a house. Now, we are the people who Do Their Stuff Right. We saved and conserved and researched and examined our options. We bought our house for over $180k, but we were there at closing with a check for almost $40k, smacking that down to dip under 80% of the house’s value on the mortgage, thereby cleanly avoiding any required private mortgage insurance.

Now, this was 2007. We both had stable jobs and kept our spending low, and had excellent credit scores. We got a basic sort of loan pre-approval before we even went looking, because that’s a good thing to do. I still remember being amused when the broker told me that, heck, with our financial record, we could get pre-approved for over $300k on a loan! It terrifies me to think where we’d be today if we were foolish enough to believe that, just because someone would loan us a ridiculous amount of money, it would be a good idea to accept it. No, we stayed the course; we were the traditional old squares with 20% down on our 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, which was sold to Citibank by our no-name broker before the ink was even dry on the contract. But that didn’t matter, because nothing changed other than getting nice online services; our 6.25% interest rate held firm, and we amused ourselves by trying to decide which fifth of the house we owned.

Then came 2008.

Do you listen to NPR? You may have noticed that I do, but there’s a specific reason I bring it up now. That reason is this episode of This American Life. I can give a rundown of what happened in late 2007-early 2008, and how my experience purchasing a home at the very apex of the housing bubble relates to it, and that is entirely thanks to that single hour of radio. It is brilliant, well researched, and comprehensible to people without degrees in economics. I highly recommend you listen to it.

Basically, why we’re in this giant hole? Look at me, your stable, 20% down, 30-year fixed-rate mortgage. I have a job, I have money in the bank, I’m going to pay you back when you loan me money. Now look at the guy next to me. No, not my husband. The other guy, over there, we’ll call him Ralph. He doesn’t have a job, not a dime in the bank. Is he going to pay you back? Think for a while about it. Would you lend him your money? No? Well, okay, what if you could lend him money, rake in the closing costs, and then immediately sell the debt to someone else? You get your money back immediately, and someone else takes the fall if Ralph doesn’t pay it back? Does this sound more appealing?

Well, it did to a lot of people in the mortgage business. Used to be that you went to get a loan from your bank, they’d look at your employment and what money you had saved, and decide whether or not to give you a loan based on that, because they were going to keep the loan right there in their pockets. With all these independent brokers, though? They were going to bundle mortgages up and sell them off as mortgage-backed securities to the world market, making money on all sides, so what did they care what kinds of risk their borrowers were? The world demanded these investments, so why not just start lending to any random dude off the street?

And that’s pretty much what they did. They stopped checking employment history, stopped checking credit history, stopped seeing if you had money in the bank. By the end of it, all you really needed was a pulse, and even that was negotiable. Remember when my broker said he’d lend me three hundred thousand dollars? That’s because he didn’t actually give a damn about the fact that I never could have survived under the weight of a mortgage that big. He wasn’t going to be footing the bill when I crashed–when my adjustable interest rate went up, or when my wages got cut, or when I had any slight interruption of my normal cash flow. Who was going to be footing the bill? All those investors from around the world who bought the mortgage-backed securities, of course!

From there, the economics of it all are pretty easy to figure out. High supply of cheap (or temporarily cheap, until the low intro rate on the ARM went up) money meant a high demand for houses, and high demand means prices rise. So, housing bubble. And when all that money falls apart, bubble bursts, because demand drops, so prices drop.

So how does this relate to me? Well, in the days of around 4% mortgages, 6.25% is suddenly looking nigh ostentatiously expensive. I don’t understand why Citibank repeatedly encouraged me to refinance at a lower rate, offering me rebates at closing such that I could give them less interest. What exactly is the business model in encouraging your stable, well-paying customers to pay you less money? Regardless, I’m grateful for it, because starting two weeks ago, I’m on path to stare down a 4.25% 15-year mortgage. There has been but one stumbling stone in the center of this path: the appraisal.

Remember how much I bought the house for? The estimate on my original application was that my house had probably lost a sixth of its value. However, I’m not surprised by the appraisal which came in today, cheerfully informing me that my house has, in fact, lost a full third of its value. This leaves me approximately seven thousand dollars underwater–owing more than my house is supposedly worth.

Fortunately, my husband and I Do Our Stuff Right. We’ve spent the past four years rebuilding our savings, and we can afford to pay this thing down enough to keep our shiny new rate. And the simple fact is that if we were still renting, and wanted to rent a place like this, we’d probably be paying well more than our monthly mortgage and escrow payments. So no, I’m not sorry that I bought a house at the worst possible moment; it’s a little akin to buying a bunch of stock in September 1929, but when the stock market crashes, all you have is paper. When the housing bubble bursts, if you’re not one of the ones who pricked it up, you still have a house. Might you lose money? Yes. But contrary to what the past decade might have one believe, making money investing is a risk, not a right.