By Dr. Kathy Marshack
Sometimes it is the Small Stuff that can cause the most suffering. For example, I know of a dad who can’t see his children for months while the state investigates how his stepson broke his arm. . . and the caseworkers have not figured out yet that the child suffers from “brittle bone” disease . . . and injured himself falling “up” the stairs when he tripped. In another situation I met a mom who was arrested for assault and destruction of property when she destroyed the “porn” DVD her boyfriend was watching . . . with her 12 year old child. She spent three days in jail for protecting her son. Or in a third case I heard the story of a mom who desperately tried to get the school district to recognize that her son was being bullied. She was ignored until the boy got a serious head injury rendering him permanently disabled.
Why do I call these examples “Small Stuff”? Because these stories don’t hit the front page. They are injustices that ordinary Americans suffer every day . . . quietly. This column is dedicated to these citizens. I want to tell the stories of those who don’t have the resources to protect their rights. Government prosecutors aren’t interested in the facts, only convictions. Large bureaucracies cover up malfeasance. So most people suffer the small stuff that destroys their families. They carry on somehow, but maybe now they can have a voice.
Sent to collections because I disputed a medical bill
Since this is my first column and I haven’t yet heard your story, I will tell one of my own. It is a story of an injustice that goes back to 2007 when I took my daughter to Fisher’s Landing Physical Therapy Clinic in Vancouver Washington. I had no idea that this clinic would cause a financial nightmare that continues to this day. . . all because I disputed the bill. My credit is destroyed and I just have to live with it.
In 2007 my daughter was recovering from ankle surgery and needed physical therapy. I chose Fisher’s Landing Physical Therapy because they were located close to my home. The first time I took my daughter for an appointment, I asked the clerk what my copayment was but she wasn’t sure. She told me that she hoped to figure it out by my daughter’s next visit. Each time I took her to an appointment I would give the clerk my health insurance card and ask if she had figured out yet what my copayment was. Since my copay is a percentage of the fee, it just depends on the service received. However, each week I was told that the bookkeeper was still working on the problem.
I got worried after a month of this that I would have a huge bill to pay eventually. I called the insurance company too, PacifiCare. They told me that they couldn’t tell me my copay because it was variable and that the clinic should tell me. Well that wasn’t very helpful.
I decided on a temporary solution by writing monthly checks for $100. Eventually over the next five months I sent them $500 and still they could not figure out my co-insurance. They even returned my final check of $100 for some strange reason. Long after my daughter ceased her treatment at Fisher’s Landing Physical Therapy, the clinic was still unclear about what I owed. So I just stopped paying them until they could figure it out.
One day, months after my daughter’s treatment was finished I got a bill from Fisher’s Landing showing that I still owed about $200. I called them to verify and they assured me that they finally got their bookkeeping system in order and that this final amount would clear my balance. Satisfied with their explanation I wrote another check. Whew!!! Finally the bill was settled. . . a year later.
However, this was not the end. I got another bill the next month. I called Fisher’s Landing again. This time they told me they had made some mistakes and needed to re-bill the insurance company to see what I actually owed them. I waited for Fisher’s Landing and PacifiCare to figure it out. I got several bills after that showing varying amounts from about $200 to $2000 but nothing was in any particular order. One month I might get a bill for $1600 and the next for $200, but no payments were received to account for the differing amounts. It was as if Fisher’s Landing’s billing system had a computer virus and was spitting out random bills.
The collection agency could care less about the facts
I went back to the insurance company and pushed the problem up the corporate ladder by complaining about their medical provider Fisher’s Landing Physical Therapy. This got PacifiCare to conduct an audit. They found multiple over-charges and duplicate charges by Fisher’s Landing. After scouring the books, the audit showed that I owed about $300. Finally, I was getting somewhere.
Just to be on the safe side I contacted Fisher’s Landing and told them I would send them a check if they would accept the auditor’s findings. They refused and told me I owed them over $2000 by now. I called my attorney when Fisher’s Landing turned me over to a collection agency, IC Systems Inc. The collection agency demanded $1800 or they would report me as a bad debt to the credit bureaus. Why they came up with $1800 I will never know.
I once again contacted the insurance company for help. They responded by conducting a second audit and found the same thing . . . that I owed only about $300. It would have been $200 if Fisher’s Landing hadn’t returned one of my checks. So with two audits under his belt my attorney approached the collection agency with the data. By then the three credit bureaus were reporting me as having a bad debt that was seriously delinquent (two years delinquent!). My attorney demanded that IC Systems accept the $300 and clear the bad debt from my credit bureau reports. They reluctantly agreed.
To this day, the credit bureaus report that I have a cleared bad debt that was paid off two years late. IC Systems Inc. did not honor their word and clear the delinquency notice. They merely reported the $1800 as paid late. . . and I didn’t even owe $1800! What’s worse is that I have been denied credit for years because of this debt, and I have absolutely perfect credit otherwise. Just this year I was finally able to refinance my house (and after years of being repeatedly denied), but the bank bumped me up into the category of less than favorable mortgagees because of this one bad debt report. It did no good to explain to Wells Fargo that the bad debt is a lie.
Being resourceful may not be enough
I have tried other things to get this problem cleared up. I am resourceful. I contacted a company that specializes in clearing fraudulent bad debts, Lexington Law. In over two years of badgering the credit bureaus, Lexington Law was successful in getting two credit bureaus to drop the delinquent designation but one stubbornly holds onto it. I also sent a complaint to the Washington State Depart of Health Quality Assurance, which is the department who handles complaints against medical professionals. They told me that a billing dispute does not harm the patient and therefore they can do nothing about it. I contacted the Washington State Office of Consumer Affairs but they confirmed that they have no authority over local business practices. They can only send a letter to Fisher’s Landing suggesting they resolve the dispute.
This last point is exactly why this column is so important. You can be resourceful. You can hire an attorney. You can make phone calls. You can go through channels and use the public agencies that are supposed to be there to help you. You can be reasonable all you want, but it may not be enough. You suffer and suffer and suffer because the obstacles are just too great.
Rather than trust the “system” to protect your rights be an advocate for change. Don’t sit quietly because your problem is small stuff. This small stuff not only drains you and your loved ones, but it drains our country too. Think about it, do we really need crooked credit bureau reporting agencies? Do we really need crooked medical licensing boards that could care less about the patient? And what on earth is the point of paying taxes for an Assistant State Attorney for Consumer Affairs if he doesn’t help with consumer complaints?
There you have it. Now let me know, what is your story?
Write to Dr. Kathy Marshack at firstname.lastname@example.org.