Press-Republican

September 22, 2013

Health-care system failing many

By STEVE OUELLETTE, You Had To Ask
Press-Republican

---- — Our country has state-of-the-art medical facilities and brilliant doctors who can work what would have been considered miracles a generation ago, yet there’s no question that health care in our country is broken.

The system is designed to earn profits more than it is to take care of Americans (the top five health-insurance companies averaged about $2.5 billion in profits last year), thus tens of millions of people don’t have any insurance at all, while many more struggle to pay their bills. It’s estimated that more than a million people declare bankruptcy each year due to medical bills.

It’s a very serious issue, one that hits close to home, and one that will on occasion keep me up at night. And it has no bearing on my gripe today.

My tiny, minuscule issue came from paying some recent medical bills. Not affording the bills, but actually paying them. It ruined one recent morning, and perhaps I can save someone else the same frustration.

Due to several visits and minor tests, my wife had a few separate medical bills to pay. Since I prefer to pay our bills electronically, I went on the hospital’s website to complete the transaction.

Rather than pay four separate bills, I elected to sign up as a “frequent patient” and pay them all at once. Ha.

The sign-up page asked for three simple pieces of information: A recent account number, the patient’s name and our zip code. Easy. I almost never get my wife’s name wrong, I memorized our zip code days ago, and though each bill had a different account number, I had all four right in front of me.

“Authorization failed.”

Huh, that’s odd. I tried again. Authorization failed. Did I accidentally misspell the name? Nope. Did I mistype a digit? Nope. I tried some common misspellings of our last name, using a Q and fewer “Ls” and/or “T’s” and “E’s.” No luck.

Maybe only one of the four different account numbers would be valid for a frequent patient. I tried the earliest bill. Authorization failed. I tried the most recent bill. Authorization failed. Failed. Failed.

Reluctantly — because it was such a simple form — I clicked on the “How It Works” button. The pop-up window instructions included this: “Make sure you enter everything exactly as it appears on your statement.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. The bill used my wife’s middle initial! I tried the form with the initial included. Authorization failed. I tried all four account numbers. Failed.

Wait. The bill from the hospital is addressed to a nine-digit zip code. Surely the form wouldn’t require this bit of minutiae just to let me register and hand over my money, would it? I didn’t know that I even had four extra digits, but there they were. I tried, with four different account numbers, and my wife’s middle initial, but no luck. Authorization failed. How about the nine-digit zip but no middle initial? Uh uh.

What a time-saving, convenient feature this was proving to be. I’m considering becoming a frequent psychiatric patient.

Desperate for answers, I noted that the instructions required a proper Web browser. I thought my browser was one of the acceptable ones, but to be sure I tried entering the information in two other browsers. Five-digit zip codes and nine. Middle initial and no middle initial. Four different account numbers.

Authorization failed.

I could have driven to the emergency room, waited for an available physician and then physically handed him the money to pay our old bill. Would have been quicker.

Finally beaten, I resigned myself to waiting for the collection agencies. I did, however, dash off an extremely unfriendly note to customer service, using totally inappropriate words that I’m not proud of.

The same day I got a response, with a helpful tip: Type the patient name in capital letters.

All caps? Who types anything in all caps, except for people yelling in an Internet chat room? If you’re going to require all caps, shouldn’t that, you know, be mentioned somewhere?

Reluctantly, almost hating myself for doing it, I navigated back to the website. Account number. Wife’s name, with middle initial. Zip code, with nine digits. Helvetica bold font, just like on the bill. All caps.

Authorized.

I did have one more misstep, forgetting to put the amount of my payment in the proper box. I got back this warning:

“Ensure that the sum of all payment entries is between $.01 and $9,999,999.99.” Whew. If my bill was $10 million I would have had to use a different form of payment.

The lesson, if anyone else is having the same problem, is to make sure you use all caps. Or don’t get sick.

If only all health issues were this easily solved.

Email Steve Ouellette:ouellette1918@gmail.com