The Grinch That Almost Stole Christmas

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m not into rants. Complaining is rarely constructive, I know. But I spent the afternoon sorting through a 2-month stack of medical bills and correspondences related to those. Despite the fact that I consistently pay bills on time, we received threatening notices from local hospitals for payments they deemed late.

Three instances of avoidable hassle:

1. Our primary insurance company changed my record in error; for a few months it’s been listed as secondary to another insurer. So all my medical claim forms since around Oct 1 – including bills for lab tests, x-rays, doctors’ visits – were uniformly rejected. The error was theirs, they said; they’ll reprocess all the claims and send me a check in 1-2 weeks. Upshot: aside from an hour or so on the phone, it could have been far worse.

2. A local hospital sent us notice of an unpaid bill for services rendered on Dec 2, 2010 – that’s just three weeks ago. The letter came from an orthopedics center where I’ve received care for decades, for an amount under $300. I have no idea what the problem was, except that it likely relates to my primary insurance claim (as in number 1, above) being rejected due to the insurance company’s error. I called the “call us with any questions” phone number at 2 PM in the afternoon, worried I’d have a hard time finding out what’s wrong and addressing the claim over the holiday, and of course just got a voice mail recording. Status: unresolved.

3. A threatening letter from another hospital suggested, firmly, they’d take me to collection for an unpaid $20. I’d paid that copay amount twice, or thought I had. Turns out that even though the venerable institution’s printed payment form has credit card logos on its upper right corner, along with a grid of small rectangles for the numbers, expiration date and signature, which I’d completed and mailed, twice, using their envelopes and my stamps (a detail, I realize, but still…), the receptionist after a long hold period told me that the particular pathology department at the hospital doesn’t accept credit card payments. So there was no record of my attempts at payment.Resolution: I am mailing a personal check to the hospital’s billing company, now. (Good thing we had some stamps in the apartment; it’s hard to get out in this cold, windy weather.)

Forgive me, readers, for venting on a date like this, but this is a small instance of insurance bureaucracy which we simply can’t afford.

At least I can pay my bills, and I’m not super-sick as I was a few years ago. I remember what it was like going in and out of the hospital encountering stacks, literally, of envelopes and confusing statements about what I needed to be pay. After a single hospital stay there’d be bills – sometimes dozens – from various departments at the hospital and some private offices, each with separate account numbers and P.O. boxes for payment due.

Financial grief and nasty letters about health care bills, including outstanding statements that one has tried in good faith to clear, or which arise due to not infrequent errors by the insurance companies are not just mean; they’re potentially devastating.

There’s no good reason for such letters and correspondence to exist. If we had a streamlined, single payer system, without the back-and-forth about who’s paying for what fraction of each lab test, x-ray, pathology review and occasional physical examination, we’d save trillions of dollars. We’d save on the minor stuff, too: postage, envelopes, copying forms, endless phone waiting on hold. Wasted time. The only problem with eliminating the business is that claims adjudicators and insurance executives might need new jobs. Maybe they’d take up health IT, instead?

The good news is I got through my personal stack of paperwork and will now enjoy the end of December. I will spend extra time with my husband and sons and do some fun stuff, besides some serious writing. But I’m painfully aware of how incredibly lucky I am –

The reality is that insurance claims and medical bills – valid and invalid – can dampen the holiday season for those who are seriously ill, and their families. The medical bill payment industry adds financial woes and further compromises people who are already suffering.

Health care bills shouldn’t ruin anyone’s holiday, or life. That’s one of the reasons I support Physicians for a National Health Program.

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