Humanity overcomes a Catch-22 at the Lucca Post Office

Which is worse: Italy’s bureaucracy or American health insurance? I found myself stuck in between these two immovable forces last week as I tried to receive my daily meds shipped to me from my wife in the U.S.

First of all, this began as an American problem.

“Sorry,” I was told by my American health insurer in the U.S. in December, “we can’t pay for more than one month of medicine at a time.”

That was pretty bad news since I knew I’d be in Lucca for the next six months.

“How much to buy six month’s worth in cash?” I asked.

“That will be $350 per month, please.”

Thank you, Molina Health Insurance and corporate health care in America. Wow. Faced with a bill of that size, Theresa (who’s staying at our home in Seattle) and I agreed she’d ship my medicines to me in bi-monthly quantities until we both had our Tessere Santaria and could get an Italian doctor to make out Italian prescriptions.

Fast forward to last Monday. I’m at our Italy home near Piazza San Michele, I’m out of medicine and wondering when my shipment from Seattle will arrive. The doorbell rings. Certain it’s my pills from Seattle I run down the stairs and see the postal worker there with a tantalizing box. She checks my i.d. and checks the box. Hooray, they’re a match.

“Per favore,” she says, “€39.90.”

As well as the $75.00 to ship the box from the U.S. there’s a customs duty due, in cash, at delivery.

“Posso pagare con carta credito?” No. Cash required.

I have none. I use none. Only cards. “No problem,” the postal worker says in accented English, “you can pick up your package in five days at the Central Post Office.”

As a retired pastor, I always feel guilty about cursing. To avoid the guilt I avoid the curse, but today it is sitting there just under the surface. Another five days without medicine. Ahh… Anyway, I think with relief, my pills are here in the country.

So, first thing on Tuesday I head to the post office to pay the customs duty and receive my pills. I enter through the automatic sliding glass doors of Lucca’s main post office and turn left to get my number. My one month of Italian classes in 2014 is good enough to translate the message on the ticket screen:

“Scan your green pass.”

I know how this will go. My American “green pass” is a white CDC card. Even though it shows two Pfizers and a Pfizer booster it won’t satisfy an Italian scanner hellbent on deciphering a scannable QR code. No scan, no ticket to go to the window. I’m just 20 meters away from my medicine, but without a scannable Green Pass, I’m stuck.

Over the last months I’ve tried every way I know how to get the Italian Green Pass, but at each turn I’m told I need a Tessera Sanitaria health card to get my green pass. When I was in France last year I went to a pharmacy which was happy to give me a Green Pass. I’ve tried pharmacies in Italy. No. I’ve tried websites in Italy. No. Now I realize, I also need a Green Pass to get my American medicine waiting for me at the Post Office.

Feeling the blood rush to my face I walk to the first available window and use all the Italian I can muster from my 2014 classes to tell the clerk my problem. In my broken Italian, sprinkled with influences from college Spanish, I say:

“I need to pick up my medicines,” I show the receipt to claim my little box.

“You need a green pass. Next?” I try to look immovable. I show my American CDC card.

“No, you need a green pass, please go away. Next?” I try to look more immovable.

“I can’t go away, my medicines are inside the box. I need my medicines.” At this point, the clerk turns to her colleague and together they look at me and shake their heads.

“How am I supposed to get my medicines in the box with my American green pass? The law says it’s as good as an Italian green pass.”

By now the clerk is angry. She says a lot of Italian words. She’s probably not a retired pastor, so some may be juicy. She grabs my receipt. Scans it. Then she swivels around and walks to a wide, metal drawer in the wall. There’s my medicine box! She grabs the box and brings it to her desk. She says, “€39.90.” I give her a €50 note. She takes it and starts typing. Then she points the portable scanner at me and says,

“The computer requires that I scan your green pass so I can take your money.”

My jaw drops.


She then does the most incredible thing. She reaches under her desk and pulls out her purse. She digs through it for her phone and opens it, angrily clicking through apps. She finds her green pass and holds it up to the scanner. Her pass.

For me.

I don’t know the words in either Italian or English to say how grateful I am. I take my medicine box. I think about giving her the €10.10 in change as a tip, but decide that’s probably some sort of bribery and I’m not ready to try out Italian jails. I bow to her with my hands held together in a thank you prayer. Outside the post office, I open the box and dig through it. I find the brown plastic bottles, turn the child proof lids, and flip first a white pill and then a pink pill into my mouth and swallow.

For one day, maybe only one day, a woman’s humanity saved me from American and Italian bureaucracy.

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4 thoughts on “Humanity overcomes a Catch-22 at the Lucca Post Office

  1. I thought one couldn’t send medications into Italy. I have my health card and just found out from my new doctore, my medication is not available in Italy. Anyone have options for me?

  2. It’s amazing to me that QR codes aren’t universal. What an amazing and ongoing oversight. My New York State QR isn’t legible by Canadian or European readers. I doubt it’s legible by New Jersey readers.
    To the credit of Italian bureaucracy, i have found them more flexible than their categorical NOs would imply. Sometimes “absolutely not” really only means, “ask me again”.
    I’m glad it worked out for you

  3. Love this story- especially the ending. Sometimes when you are ready to give up- the unexpected happens!!

  4. Try ordering from the Vatican online pharmacy! They are good at taking overseas prescriptions, are so much cheaper than US prices that it is often not worth going through insurance, will ship to you with no import taxes……but do want CASH on delivery!! ( “ In God we trust, all others …….”)

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