Thursday, August 23, 2012

Column for August 23, 2012

I am sitting at my desk with a medical bill in front of me from Johnston Health.  I shouldn’t have a bill in front of me, but I do.  2012 will be known in our home as the year of medical bills.  The year is not even two thirds over and we have already spent more on medical bills than in any other year.  Three of us have been to the eye doctor for routine eye exams and new eye glasses.  My son has a birth defect and we have been to UNC Children’s Hospital several times for consultations, an MRI, x-rays, and more consultations.  There are plenty more trips in store for treatments.  I have been to the doctor numerous times for small things, some of which turned out to be larger, pre-op visits, a cardiologist visit, EKGs, and a bunch of other tests.  In addition to that, my third son, Benjamin, was born in April.

Since we live right here in Johnston County, we would prefer to get our medical care right here, if possible.  Two of my sons were born in the Women’s Pavilion at Johnston Medical.  My son had his tonsils removed at the new Johnston Health Center in Clayton last year.  In general, we have received acceptable care from the Johnston Health system.  We just have not received acceptable “back office” support.

After our son was born earlier this year, we got statements about the costs associated with the delivery.  I have an excellent health care plan through my employer, for which they and I pay a good amount of money.  The benefits package with my employer is one reason I have stayed there almost 18 years now.  In my lifetime, I have gone through periods of not having any health coverage, sometimes for up to seven years at a time, but this was a conscious choice on my part in seeking my career path.  Even after insurance coverage, there were significant bills.  We paid them all.  Within a couple of months, we started getting small bills in the amounts of approximately $120 and $140 from the hospital.  We had no idea why, since we had already paid the post-insurance amounts.  We paid those bills, too.  The amazing thing was that we started getting collection agency calls on those bills not long after we got the bills.  After paying a $140+ bill, we quickly got a refund check for the exact amount we paid.

Just within the past two weeks, I got another bill for just over $170 for the post-insurance balance due from my preoperative screening in April.  I have not paid that bill just yet since we just received it for the first time.  Well, just today I got a nasty automated collection agency call telling me that this bill was past due.  I have not had good success with trying to get information from people who deal with bills in the Johnston Health system.  I have dealt with ignorant (by design) clerks who don’t have access to the billing system but can take money.  I have wrestled with telephone systems that lead me to voicemail jail or to extensions that nobody answers.  Finally I went through different prompts upon calling again and got a customer service representative who was all the way in Chattanooga.  Yup, she was in Tennessee, not anywhere near Johnston County.  Fortunately, the lady with the cute young voice was very helpful, verifying that the billing was done twice, the refund was legitimate, and that the $170 bill was not past due.  Perfect.  Or so I thought.  Later in the day, the friendly neighborhood mailman delivered a bill from Johnston Health for the same $140+ charge that I just had determined was paid in full.

Another newspaper in the county has been fairly critical of the Johnston Health Board of Commissioners for seeking an alliance with other health care systems.  Personally, I am in favor of such a thing and have written so in this very publication.  If a larger, more experienced, and efficient system can bring better health care, better financial management, and especially better billing practices to Johnston Health, I am all for it.  I have a stack of medical bills in front of me from UNC Hospitals and I don’t have these sorts of problems with them at all.

Johnston Health has evolved and come a long way from its inception.  The county is one of the fastest growing in the state and nation, so we will eventually need to keep pace with the growth.  I just hope that better management will lead to better customer service.  I shudder to think what the system will be like when Obamacare is in full swing.

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