Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Absolute health care victory

Today's story is one that dates back to October. It's my favorite kind of story: It's one about sticking it to the Man and letting the little guy win for once.

If you'd like the extended version, read below.

If you want the quick-and-easy version, here's what you need to know: I received an erroneous medical bill in December, and after emailing the CEO and about five other higher ups, I finally got the charge removed. The Executive Email Carpet Bomb that Matt has read about many times through other angry consumers' accounts on The Consumerist truly did work.

So here's the full gory account.

In late October I got a call from my doctor's office telling me it was time to come in for my annual appointment. I obliged and we scheduled an appointment for early December. The appointment is categorized for billing purposes as Preventative Medicine, which through my specific insurance at Kaiser Permanente carries no co-payment.

Which is why I was surprised in early January to get a bill in the mail. For $15. Still, it was $15 I knew I shouldn't have to pay. Of course we could pay the $15 and be done with it, but let's be real here people: I'm a person of integrity, and I don't have children (so I have a little time to spare), and I do have good communication skills, so I knew a little phone call here or perhaps even there would get this problem resolved lickety-split.

I contacted our Member Services department and reached a sympathetic woman who instructed me to write a letter, gave me some suggestions regarding what information to include to get an immediate response, and within a day the letter was signed and sealed and within three days delivered. I even called Kaiser to make sure they received my letter and had it in my file. Yes and yes, and I was told I would get another letter from them in a matter of days.

I hoped this letter I received in mid-January would simply say, "You're right, we're wrong, we're removing the charge." Instead, the letter acknowledged receiving my letter and instructed me to wait for another letter that would arrive in 30 days. The next letter, which arrived three weeks later, told me that my letter had been passed on to another person and I would get another letter in at least 14 days, and if I did not receive a response in 14 days I needed to contact the person who sent me the original letter. I had a gut feeling I had entered an episode of bureaucratic hell. I was painfully correct.

When I proceeded to not receive any communication and I received another bill in the mail, I called the person who had sent me the letters and was supposedly handling my account in early March. This man, Mr. McDonald, told me that he'd sent a request to review my account on to a supervisor, but that person wasn't responding. He kept supposedly sending my request through again and again to no avail. But then he kept promising to call me back and didn't. And then he asked me to call him at certain days and times when he would never be by his phone.

By March 22 I got bill number 3 in the mail. Despite my better sense, I tried to get back in touch with Mr. McDonald. He proved his final feat of incompetence when he told me he was going to his supervisor and he would call me back immediately. Shockingly, he never called.

So I went over him. I found someone who, it turns out, is two supervisors above him. She was none too pleased to be talking to me on the phone. She sent me along to Mr. McDonald's direct supervisor, Mr. Martin, who was seemingly more accommodating, who promised me that the matter should be resolved and I shouldn't be receiving any more bills.

Mr. Martin was right -- I didn't receive another bill. This time, instead, on May 3 I received a letter from a collections agency. And this is where the story gets really fun.

I took all my scribbled notes scratched and Post-It-noted all over five months' worth of paper work and turned it into a several-page timeline, where I outlined in painstaking detail whom I had contacted when. I named names. I mentioned exact times.

That same night Matt and I stayed up past our bedtimes trying to find the email addresses for the top Kaiser Permanente Mid-Atlantic executives. Because the information is not publicly displayed on the organization's website, it takes some internet savvy to uncover. We sent out the email, only to get most of the emails bounced back to my inbox. So 20 minutes later we tried another variation on everyone's email addresses, and this time it worked. By early the next morning I received a phone call from Bonnie Humphreys, Senior Communications Specialist, who was contacting me on behalf of George Halvorson, Chairman and Chief Executive Office of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan. She got the billing dispute handled immediately, contacted the collections agency to have the charges dropped, and she sent me a letter dated May 9 that not only put everything in writing to reassure me that it had in fact been handled, but gave me a nice apology, too.

As the icing on the cake, though, this evening I received a personal call from Dr. Doug Cappiello, Physician In Chief for the Northern Virginia Service Area, following up to see if the matter was resolved. He was calling because he had seen the email I addressed to Robert M. Pearl, President and CEO of the Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group. Dr. Cappiello gave me his cell phone number so I could call him back, and he sent me an email minutes after leaving me a voicemail.

Would I have emailed the CEO as step 1? Of course not. In this case, it was more like step 27. In retrospect, though, I could have taken the matter to the top earlier in the game and it would have been justified. So learn from my experience: When telling the incompetent customer service rep on the other end of the line that you need to speak to his supervisor simply won't do, launch the Executive Email Carpet Bomb and take it straight to the top. It certainly worked for me.

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