A Lesson for a Cynic

November 12, 2007

I had a funny thing happen the other day, that is if you can consider something funny when it begins by enraging you and scaring you half to death.

A little more than a year ago I had some minor surgery.  (Nothing serious and I’m fine now; thanks very much for asking.)  My bills for the surgery were, after the insurance kicked in, high, but not crazy high.  I paid what I owed and recovered and moved on.  I rarely even think about it anymore. 

But a few days ago, I received an E.O.B. (Explanation of Benefits) from my insurance company that seemed to indicate that the hospital had submitted new charges for the surgery .  The charges amounted to nearly $10,000.00, and my liability after insurance was pegged at about $350.00.  It’s not a lot of money, but I was curious as to why thirteen months after the precedure I should be billed for anything.  I made a mental note to call my insurance company and the hospital, but I also figured I’d be best off waiting for the hospital to bill me — perhaps their bill would give me some better indication of why all this was happening now.

The bill arrived on Friday, and it said that I owed not $350.00, but . . .  wait for it . . . $8,208.36.  At this point, as you might imagine, curiosity gave way to that rage and terror I mentioned earlier.  I knew that there was something wrong, and that my fear was probably misplaced.  But I also knew that dealing with medical billing, even in cases of institutional error, is no trifle.  Wading through the bureaucracy, spending hours on the phone, arguing with people who are far more familiar with the jargon and the system than I.  I swore to myself that there was no way I would pay them that money, but I also found myself wondering how I would raise the money if I was left with no choice.  The last thing I wanted was to have my credit trashed because of their accounting error. I don’t remember the exact statistic, but I know that a large percentage of personal bankruptcies in this country result not simply from consumer debt, but from debt compounded by huge medical costs.  Not, that I thought $8,000.00 would bankrupt me, but . . . well, you try staying calm in the face of an erroneous hospital bill of that size.

I called my insurance company first, and they told me that the EOB was sent out because the original bill from last year had been revised downward, and so the charges were resubmitted.  In other words, this was a bill I had already paid, and at the time, my share was $375.00.  The hospital owed me $25.00!!  Okay, so that explained the late EOB.  The person at the insurance company had no idea how the hospital had come up with a bill for $8,000.00.  So next I called the hospital billing office.

Here’s the kicker, the source of this post’s title. 

All this was happening late on Friday afternoon, and I called the hospital at about 3:50 pm local time.  I got a message on an answering machine, which informed me that the business office closed at 4:00 and that no one could take my call at that time.  I left a message that was, I’m not very proud to say, a bit curt, a touch angry, perhaps even a smidge rude.  I noted that my insurance company had made it clear that I didn’t owe them a penny, and that their bill was ridiculous.  I also said that I understood that it was late on a Friday and they were probably eager to get home for the weekend, but that it wasn’t 4:00 yet and I really hoped someone would return my call.  I hung up angry and frustrated and certain that I would spend the first part of this week dealing with billing departments and insurance companies and who-knows-what-else.

At 4:10, the phone rang.  It was a woman from the hospital billing department — I’m ashamed to say that I’ve forgotten her name.  She said that yes, they stop answering the phones a bit before 4:00 on Fridays, but that she never likes to leave for home on a Friday with unanswered messages and unaddressed issues still on her desk.  In effect, she works overtime so that she can feel that she’s fulfilled all of her responsibilities, and so that the people who call her receive a response that same day.  She then apologized for the hospital’s obvious error, assured me that I didn’t owe them anything, and told me that, in fact, I’d be receiving a small check from them in the next month or so.  She said that she could only imagine how receiving such a bill from them must have made me feel.  “I would have been angry, too,” she said, accepting my apology for that rude message before I could muster the grace and good sense to offer it.  “I would have been furious.  I’m so sorry it happened.”

The health care system in this country is an utter mess.  It is desperately in need of deep, thoughtful reform of the kind that makes politicians and medical industry lobbyists tremble with fear.  But it is also true that beyond the murky, polluted shore where politics meets medicine, there are fine, dedicated, compassionate people like this woman, whose name I so desperately wish I could remember.  They are people who went into health care not because they saw it as a stepping stone to some higher office, and not because they thought it was an easy way to make money, but rather because they wanted to make a difference in people’s lives.  It’s these people who offer us our greatest hope of building a health care system that is as effective and efficient and compassionate as our nation deserves.

And on Friday, a few minutes after closing time, one of these caring professionals taught this confirmed cynic that there are people in the world who do their jobs well for the simple reason that there should be no other way to do a job, and who go out of their way to make the lives of others a bit easier because it’s the right thing to do.

Today’s music:  Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Mark O’Connor (Appalachia Waltz)

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