“This,” the voicemail barks, “IS AN ATTEMPT TO COLLECT A DEBT.” It’s perhaps the third call like this I’ve gotten this week. And my mailbox is filling with threatening-looking letters from nebulously-named corporations threatening all sorts of punishments for failure to pay. Two days ago, I got a “pre-approval” for a secured credit card in the mail — a sure sign that my beacon score has fallen off the end of a very high cliff.
But how did this happen?
Long-time readers of this site might remember that I contracted pneumonia in July. After a brief hospitalization, I was released and given a few different kinds of antibiotics, some of which made me dig my fingers into my skin until blood welled up around them and some of which didn’t work at all. Eventually I was able to go back to work. I’ve had various flight-and-altitude-and-travel-related relapses since then but I’d say I am now at 90% of where I was prior to the hospital stay.
I have the best health insurance my day job offers, plus I signed up for the HSA and the medical savings card. About 15 days after I got out of the hospital, I started getting a flood of mail related to the incident. I received a note from the insurer that of the $13,200 or so of initial charges, they had paid $6,000 and negotiated away $5,000 and the rest needed to be paid to the hospital immediately. So I spent four hours teaching my HSA to pay the hospital. That covered $1400 of the $2100 so that left me with $700 or so to pay. No problem, I have a medical savings card as well.
Except that I got a letter from the medical savings card people telling me that they didn’t recognize the place I’d used it at as a medical facility and had suspended the card. The place in question was a doctor’s office. It has the fucking couplet of letters, “MD”, right in the name cited in the letter. I need paper receipts. But the paper receipts aren’t available at the doctors office. They’re available at an office building downtown. After I get them, I can start the process to un-suspend my medical card and pay my remaining hospital bill. The only way I can contest the issue with my medical card provider is to fax them documentation. There is literally no phone number available.
Meanwhile, additional bills started arriving. I estimate that there were perhaps eight of them, or more, assuming I threw some away as junk mail before I began to recognize the type. Mid-Ohio Emergency Services. (Who are these people? I didn’t take an ambulance to the hospital.) Five different doctors, only one of which has a name I recognize. Two extremely vaguely named medical-sounding places. All billing me between $150 and $900. The bills vary in every particular except one: an all-italic-caps sentence on the bill that says
YOUR INSURANCE COMPANY HAS ALREADY PAID ALL CLAIMS. THIS IS THE AMOUNT YOU OWE.
Says who? How can I be seriously expected to evaluate the legitimacy of these claims? I’ll pay the doctor whose name I recognize, even though I remember from working in a hospital that the hospital pays him; I suspect he’s double-dipping me for $300. The others could be entirely fraudulent. It’s been proven again and again that a certain percentage of people will pay any bill they receive. There have been federal cases made against people who did just that; sent bills to companies and individuals for nebulous services. One guy sent invoices for copier toner to Fortune 500 firms and got rich doing it. He never sent any toner. He just kept the invoices under $300, and most Accounts Receivable offices found it easier to pay the bill than verify it.
So I’m into these random companies for maybe $2500. I figured that at my leisure I’d start working with my insurer to verify the validity of each claim. Well, these mystery-bill people have now largely sent me to collections firms, about 30-60 days after I received the first bill from them. They are calling me in a swarm, like the big Chinese hornets of which everyone’s so afraid. I assume they’ve all pulled my credit bureaus, which show that I haven’t paid a debt late since George W. Bush’s father was President. I must look like a big fat target — which I am.
I have two choices here. I can pay everybody without question, which rankles. It frustrates me that being in the hospital for a day with the best insurance I can get amounts to a $6,000 personally-borne bill. Or I can start arguing the bills, demanding proof of service. I understand the Fair Credit Reporting Act and its associated sibling legislation pretty well. I know that the minute I acknowledge the debt over the phone I’m consenting to having my credit report blown to smithereens. I know that I probably have six inquiries from dodgy collection agencies on my credit, which would be a monstrous red flag if, say, I wanted to get myself a new Viper in March.
Or I could… or I could just drop out of the system for a while. My existing credit partners won’t drop me; they love me, I charge ten grand of travel and meals and various garbage every month. My mortgage is secure. I own all but one of my cars outright and what I owe on that last one wouldn’t buy a decent PRS. I could behave like the credit criminal they’ve already pegged me as and negotiate. You say I owe you $370? Prove it in writing. Tell you what. I’ll give you $150. But act quickly, the guys from Mid-Ohio Emergency Services are on the other line and I’m in a position to make just one collector’s dream come true today.
Whatever happens will happen. If it impacts my ability to lease a Flying Spur, I don’t give a shit. I stopped being the kind of guy who would lease a Flying Spur the day my son entered his oxygen tent. I stopped caring about driving a six-figure car in an Oxxford suit, I stopped caring about the authenticity of my watches, I stopped caring about the figure I was cutting in this world. I’ll drive my Town Car until it explodes and then I’ll put a Camry SE on my Amex and click that tempting-looking “extend my payment” box on the americanexpress.com interface.
But it got me thinking: If one night in a hospital can take me from somebody who is Centurion Card eligible to the kind of scumbag who sends three collection calls a day to voicemail, what does it do to regular people, living regular lives, budgeting every dollar? How did we become a country where you can buy the most insurance they’ll sell you and agree to every extra and still find yourself $500 an hour behind the eight-ball when you come out of the hospital?
I’ve watched this Obamacare debacle, with the stupid website and the holier-than-thou attitudes of the Democratic fellow-travelers in the mainstream media and — now — the tens of million dollars that Kathleen Delius or whatever her name is had decided to pay to a PR firm to rescue the program’s image. The whole thing looks like a giant train wreck to me. But my personal medical situation is a minor train wreck all by itself, despite the fact that I’ve done everything a responsible middle-class American is supposed to do.
What if the problem with Obamacare is that it doesn’t go far enough?