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