St. Mary's Hospital - Catholic Healthcare West Complaint - This would be funny if it weren't true

Review by lbguy on 2007-10-09
LONG BEACH, CALIFORNIA -- Like any consumer, I like to know what I'm paying for. Most of the time this isn't a problem, and even on those rare occasions when I get a bill that is unclear, a quick call to the company can usually clear things up. This is in the company's interest, of course -- the sooner they fix problems, the sooner they get their money.

This logic apparently is lost on St. Mary's Medical Center in Long Beach, Calif., and its parent company, Catholic Healthcare West. Over a year after receiving a bill from St. Mary's, I'm still trying to understand the charges -- and it's not for lack of trying.

On Oct. 4, 2006, I received a bill from St. Mary's. The bill itself wasn't a surprise -- I had been at the hospital three months earlier, and I had been wondering when I would see a bill. But what *was* surprising was that the bill contained absolutely no details on the charges or how the total was calculated. It simply said: Pay $597.

Since nearly half of all hospital bills contain some kind of error, everyone should look over medical charges carefully. I called the billing office of Catholic Healthcare West and requested more information. In about two weeks, I received an "itemized bill" -- a confusing list of codes and abbreviations that was virtually meaningless to me.

Since this was no help, I wrote to a supervisor in the CHW business office, on Oct. 16 requesting "plain English" explanations of the items on my bill. She never responded.

Also in October, I sent three emails to St. Mary's requesting general billing information. No one responded.

I wrote to Ms. Miller again on Nov. 9. Again, she did not respond.

In December, I did connect via email with Alberto, the chief financial officer for the hospital, who helped me decode the cryptic billing codes. That's right -- the *chief financial officer* took the time to help me, while customer service employees ignored me.

But while I now knew the meaning of the codes, I still didn't fathom how the dollar amounts were figured. When I was called in December by Carmen of the CHW Business Office, I explained the situation. At her suggestion, I wrote her a letter with my questions. No one responded.

On Feb. 8, 2007, I sent Carmen another letter explaining that if she, or someone with CHW, would simply respond to my questions, I would pay my bill. Or, I suggested, I will settle the bill for 75% of the amount due even if they did not respond to my questions. Still, no one got back to me.

When I called Carmen on Feb. 20, she told me I should call Victoria, a CHW "operations coordinator." I left voicemail messages for Victoria on Feb. 20 and Feb 28. She never called me back.

In March, I filed a Better Business Bureau complaint. Alberto replied to the BBB, noting our email exchange in December. Still, no one from St. Mary's or CHW contacted me to explain the billing charges.

At that point, I gave up. I didn't know what else I could do. It didn't seem like St. Mary's even cared whether I paid them.

Then on Oct. 2, 2007, I received notice that my account had been sent to a collection agency. This angered me, as you can imagine, so I decided to go to the top.

On Oct. 4, I went to the CHW website and got the official email address for its chief executive, Lloyd H. Dean. I wrote up an email describing how difficult it is to reach someone within his organization and sent it off. In mere moments, the email came back to me, saying "user unknown." This was becoming comical.

The next day, I decided to go back to step one by contacting the billing office. I called, was put on hold, was transferred, put on hold again, and then, after 7 minutes ... I was disconnected.

On my second call, I was transferred to a woman who had no idea how she could help me and couldn't understand how I got to her. She then transferred me to another woman, who said I should call a different number. Apparently, the number on my bill is not the right number to call.

I called the new number, and after explaining myself, this woman decided to transfer to Carmen (yes, the same one). I was then ... disconnected.

On my fourth call, I was successfully transferred to Carmen's voice mail and left a message. She called me back soon after and turned down my offer of $450 to settle the bill. Astonishingly, she told me that representatives from her office had called me more than once and sent several letters -- none of which I had ever received.

I had to laugh. It was as if, according to Carmen, that there was a parallel universe where CHW and St. Mary's were trying to get a hold of me, while I was trying to reach them in this universe.

Since I hadn't received any of the letters Carmen said had been sent, I asked: Could you please send me copies?

Um, no.

It seems Ms. Aguilar didn't actually *have* the letters. Nor did she know what they said. But if I called a Stephanie Allen, she would send me copies, Carmen assured me.

I called Stephanie Allen on Oct. 5 and left a voicemail message. I called again on Oct. 8 and Oct. 9 and left messages. Guess what? She hasn't called me back.

UPDATE: I left four messages for Stephanie Allen. A woman who didn't leave her name called me back on Oct. 9 and left a message. The call-back number she left turned out to be a fax number (!), but I managed to find the right number and ended up talking to a woman named Helen.

Despite what Carmen Aguilar had told me, Helen said that no one in her office (including Stephanie Allen) had access to letters sent to customers, so there's no way they could send copies.

When I called back Ms. Aguilar and told her this, she backed away from her previous statement that CHW had sent me letters about my account. Maybe it was just bills, she said.

I also got a called from a "Mrs. Lopez" with the collection agency Grant & Weber. She was, as you might expect, suitably nasty (hey, that's what collection agents do).

I sent a certified letter to the chief executive of CHW, which was delivered a week ago (Oct. 9). I haven't heard back yet, but I'm hopeful that this route might get some action.

UPDATE 2: I never received a response from the CEO, his office or anyone else at Catholic Healthcare West. This is one company where disrepect for consumers goes all the way to the top.
Comments:14 Replies - Latest reply on 2007-10-10
Posted by D on 2007-10-09:
If you think you have problems now, wait until it goes to a collection agency like NCO.
You will get the same kind of caring attentive service that you're getting from the hospital.
I imagine that the hospital billing is all outsourced and a personal visit to the billing office is in order!
Prepare to wait till hell freezes over, take a sleeping bag, and remember to pack your bag with lots of energy bars, because you will need them!
You have my sympathy because negotiating with a hospital is like talking to a brick wall.
They are the most self-righteous, know-it-all, group of people on the face of the planet, and deserve nothing but contempt!
Posted by Principissa on 2007-10-09:
What you need to do is gather up your complete medical record, as well as any bills and itemized statements that they sent you and find a medical advocate in your area. These people are trained to go over medical bills and find any hidden costs and also explain the bill and all of the charges to you. You'd be surprised to how much help you can get, and most of them work for little or no cost. Go to billadvocates.com. They have useful information and may be able to help you out.
Posted by Anonymous on 2007-10-09:
This is an excellent review. I'm sure this happens to people more than we realize, from all sorts of health care institutions.

I feel that most people just pay the bill, blindly, without knowing exactly what the charges are for. I also think the hospital's billing dept. is counting on that.
Posted by jenjenn on 2007-10-09:
Have you once tried calling your insurance company? I assume you must have insurance with such a small balance owed.
Posted by Principissa on 2007-10-09:
Jen sometimes health insurance doesn't cover all of the expenses. Therefore the insurance company can not help because that part of the bill they are not responsible for.
Posted by Anonymous on 2007-10-09:
Excellent review and I agree with emt_c and Principissa, I don't think there is anything I could add.
Posted by Anonymous on 2007-10-09:
Good review.
Posted by lbguy on 2007-10-09:
Thanks for all the good comments. To Jenjenn: Yes, I have contacted my insurance company. They've paid their share of the bill; the $597 is what's left over.

I hope it's clear to everyone reading this that I am NOT trying to dodge payment for the hospital's services. Clearly, I owe something. I'm simply trying to understand what I'm paying for.
Posted by D on 2007-10-09:
Very often, and I mean very, those expenses are mis-coded and often duplicated.
Trust no one except me...LOL
Posted by yoke on 2007-10-09:
Excellent review
Posted by Anonymous on 2007-10-09:
No, lbguy, I don't think anyone thinks you are trying to ditch payment, at all.

I am currently dealing with a similar issue. I've paid a bill, that I keep getting reissued every month from Sentara, no kidding.
Posted by Timboss on 2007-10-10:
You did two things wrong - sending emails and waiting to get a response. Do any refuting of bills by registered mail. Emails are easy to ignore and/or delete. You have no proof they ever read or received them. A registered mail receipt works wonders when disputing something later. The receiver's signature is right there saying they received it. And in turn, you ask to see the receipts of the mail they sent you and/or a transcript of the recorded phone calls (it seems every phone call is recorded anymore).

I voted Very Helpful.

Posted by Anonymous on 2007-10-10:
You should have sent your complaints via certified, return receipt mail.
Good luck.
Posted by hummingbirdb on 2007-10-10:
I'm having the same problems with St. Francis hospital in San Francisco (also CHW). Bullying tactics and refusal to provide itemized statements. When my insurance denied the claim, CHW is trying to charge me $8200+ for 2 CT scans,for which my insurance would have reimbursed them $520. I offered $600 to settle, but CHW would rather pursue a 60 year old in precarious financial straits for $8200+. AVOID CHW facilities like your financial livelihood depended on it!

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