Some time in late 2001, my then-girlfriend-now-wife offered me a ride home from work and never showed up. As it started to get late, I began walking home, assuming I’d see her on the way. As I came over a hill, I saw some flashing lights and as I began to panic, I remember telling myself, “Don’t worry — it’s not her. Just someone getting pulled over.” Then it was, “Don’t worry — it’s not her. Just a bashed up car that looks like hers.” Finally, “Don’t worry — it’s just some girl that looks just like her being carried out of her car on a stretcher.” Long story short — some kid hit Marni’s car while she was stopped at a red light.

When I realized that it was in fact Marni who was injured, I ran up to her as fast as I could and said, “Marni?” She would later make fun of me for not saying something more sensible, like, “Are you okay?” Anyway, the paramedics asked me which hospital to take her to. I foolishly said, “Whatever’s closest” — big mistake.

The care she got at the San Mateo General Hospital was fine. In fact, the doctor was really nice and even though I had to wait forever to see her. Everything seemed to go okay after that. She had no major injuries and the other driver acknowledged he was at fault so his insurance covered everything.

In 2004, we bought a house. It turns out that buying a house gets you on the grid for all sorts of things. We were suddenly both summoned for jury duty, and Marni gets a bill from the San Mateo General Hospital marked 3 years past due! Of course, she immediately calls and says that she never got a bill (she didn’t — we’re certain of it) and that she needs her now-former insurance company to process it (in theory, the other party should pay, but I think we got a settlement check when it happened). The hospital billing department told her that she should pay half while she pursues the matter with her insurance — that way, it won’t go to collections. The next week, it went to collections.

For the next two years, Marni would battle the billing department of the San Mateo General Hospital to have the negative credit information removed from her credit report. It turned out that they never sent a bill in the first place — their records showed that it was billed to Marni’s insurance at the time but her insurance company sent letter after letter to San Mateo saying that they never received a bill. Marni tried disputing the negative items with the credit agencies, but they always came down on the side of the hospital. It was only by escalating, documenting every call, and getting the insurance company to talk to the hospital that she got anywhere. Somewhere in the mix, we also contacted the Better Business Bureau, and the State Attorney General’s office. And even once they acknowledged that “there was a substantial delay in billing the insurance” (3 years!), they only removed the negative item from 1 of her 3 credit reports. It would take another few months of calls to get it off the other two.

I’d like to think that this is a rare fluke occurrence, but it seems that hospitals are notoriously bad about billing and quick to send people to collections, even after telling them on the phone that it won’t happen. In fact, once everything was resolved, I was going to post the whole story to the FatWallet Finance Forum, but a quick search showed almost the exact same story posted several times about several different hospitals!

The lessons I’ve learned are:

  • Check your credit report often. The hospital acted as though everything was fine and even said it was their mistake. They took our payment and still sent it to collections.
  • Be extremely careful with hospital billing. When we saw the “documentation” they had regarding the incident, it was clear that their billing system was constructed in a bygone era of dot matrix printers and green monitors.
  • Check all three reports. When the hospital finally agreed to correct their error, they initially only corrected one credit report.
  • The credit agencies exist for the benefit of creditors, not you. They’d like you to think it’s easy to dispute an item — and it is! But they will rarely see the matter your way unless you escalate up the ladder.
  • If a billing department agrees on a settlement of some kind (in our case, a temporary 50% payment while we contacted our insurance), get it in writing.
  • Sadly, if I had it to do all over again, I would’ve just paid the bill and not bothered with the insurance. It was a few hundred dollars that they ended up paying, but it wasn’t worth the trouble by a long shot.

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