False Claims

My response to billing errors is far less forgiving when I find items for imaginary services. Take the charge from my hospital for oxygen that I didn’t use—84 hours’ worth of oxygen, adding over $4,000 to my initial bill.

Now, I don’t know whether I was actually on oxygen during surgery (five hours, suspended face down) or during my continued unconscious time in the recovery room (two hours), but I do know I didn’t use any oxygen during the six days that followed. I certainly didn’t use 84 hours of oxygen. I was never hooked to a hose, mask, or tent. No oxygen was offered, my surgeon didn’t order it, and no one even told me, “Hey, if you have trouble breathing or feel weak, there’s a ready oxygen hook-up on the wall behind your bed.”

Can you imagine getting a bill from the airlines for an extra $240 for oxygen on your last flight? I mean, the oxygen was on the plane, you might have needed it, and the flight attendant even told you it was there and how to use it.

Sound reasonable to you? Me neither.

This $48-per-hour mistake was reported in chunks of 12 and 24 hours for a total of 84 hours. Once is a simple error. Twice is a wild coincidence. Three times starts to look like a conspiracy. Who the heck reported this uneven usage (12 hours one day, 24 hours the next) of oxygen that I never used, anyway? Did I look desperately in need (24 hours) of emergency O2 one day and only badly in need (12 hours) the next?

I think back over the people in the hospital, and I don’t remember anyone suspicious. In fact, considering everything that could have gone wrong, I got lucky. I don’t remember any surly, over-worked, or otherwise disgruntled employees at the hospital. I remember a bunch of friendly, supportive people who all seemed to want to see me get well. The nurses showed up every time I had a problem. The physical therapist urged me—with a smile in spite of my grumpiness—to get back on my feet and walking again. Even the folks from the kitchen seemed cheerful and accommodating. Why would any of these people want to get at me through my bank account?

But then I remember that my goal is to follow the money. This isn’t Law and Order. Fixing the blame won’t fix the problem, and pointing a finger won’t help me find the extra bucks to pay my medical bills. Ultimately, the who and how and even the why don’t matter—just the what. In this case, the what is the collection of glitches that turned an expensive but manageable cost into a debt of staggering proportions.

Eventually, if I’m going to fix this problem, I’m going to have to talk to people in the hospital billing department. If I go in angry, demanding action, they’re likely to become defensive. If I get too angry, they might even call security and have me thrown out.

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