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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Whew! - A stay of execution on a big medical bill

A TV commercial features a group of grown men sitting in a doctor's waiting room. Man after man, in turn, stretches his mouth wide open in a wail - and you hear the bawling of an infant.

The punch line: Getting a colorectal screening isn't that bad.

I laughed when I saw the ad. Then I said to my husband, Mike, "Yeah, you won't cry like a baby until you see the bill."

Mike and both I dutifully got our screenings recently, but there's a BIG chunk of money we owe before insurance kicks in. We don't have the dough. So we sent in a small payment one month, and another small payment the next month.

Those two partial payments must have activated a beeper in the medical bill credit headquarters. Next thing I knew, I got a recorded message asking me to call the corporation that owns the place we go for screenings.

Usually I ignore robo-calls, but this one sounded legitimate. And it was. I got to talk to a real person when I dialed the number. She spoke English. Clearly. After she verified that I was me, she mentioned the two partial payments we'd made and asked if we'd like to go on a payment plan at no interest and with no late penalties.

Yes! was my answer. She asked how much I'd like to pay per month. Thus began our flea-market bargaining. I suggested $50 or $75, with the option to pay more if we were able to do so. She said the lowest they could go was $80 for 12 months.


I flashed back to a similar pickle we were in back in 1976, when we had no medical insurance.

We were expecting our first child. In our natural childbirth class, the instructor gave us hints on how to keep hospital costs down. "They charge for every fifteen minutes you're in the labor room," she said. "They charge a lot for the little plastic wash tub you get, for the little hygiene items inside it, and for every aspirin." She told us we were allowed to bring in our own supplies.

I gathered my own supplies. And I was determined to spend as little time as possible in the hospital.

Nature had other ideas. When I was three and a half weeks overdue, my water broke at home. It was a pea-green color, stained with the baby's first stool: an ominous sign. After we went to the hospital, my body would not go into labor. They let me rest overnight, hooked up to a fetal monitor. Still no labor. In the morning, when the monitor showed signs of fetal distress, they said it was time for a Cesarean.

Hoh boy. So much for economizing at the hospital.

Our beloved, healthy son Charlie came with a big medical bill. Mike and I think the total damages were about $900. We didn't have the cash.

The hospital social worker assured us that we could pay the bill gradually, at our own pace. So every month I wrote a check for $25, until the slate was clean. I've always been grateful for that grace period. I've come to understand that hospitals will give you a break if you show good faith, and I've passed that message along to many friends who were stressed out about what they owed.

The 2013 style of grace - through a robot calling me - is different from how things were done back in 1976, but I still appreciate the break. So I'll be whipping out my checkbook every month to write that $80 check.

Mike and I don't want to borrow money to make sure of our colorectal health. That might make us cry like babies.

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