Squeaky wheel gets the grease

(WARNING: This column has more angles than a Spirograph.)

I watched the movie “Sicko” a couple of years ago and was, like pretty much everyone who watched it, appalled at the level of shenanigans, bullcrap, negligence and overall incompetence that was highlighted by Michael Moore (or as my father likes to call him, “that fat liberal Communist from Detroit”) in his documentary about health care in America.

The thing that I tried to explain to my dad is that Moore laid waste to insurance companies, HMOs, hospitals, the entire tangled web of red tape and bureaucrats and not just Congress, but BOTH Democrats and Republicans who are in the pocket of fat cat insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies and their lobbyists. Nobody was spared.

The movie’s subjects (and I bet the majority of people reading this right now could as well) shared story after story of either themselves or loved ones being denied life-saving treatment of diseases like aggressive cancers. Stories of people GETTING treatment for things, only to have their insurance company deny payment (can you say “pre-existing condition”?) for them, driving them bankrupt.

Well, while there are millions of Americans who would lead the charge for anybody to overhaul the current awful health care system, there are also millions of Americans who are frankly satisfied with their health care. They understand that its expensive, know that it’s imperfect, understand that there is going to be some out-of-pocket cost, but overall don’t believe anything radical should happen with the current system in America.

I must admit, that while I knew the SYSTEM that ran our health care was pretty FUBAR, I wasn’t about to go on any campaign or crusade to make revolutionary changes to the way things were.

That was, until last week when I got a bill for $474 from a local ER for…nothing.

About a month or so ago, I injured my rib. I’ll spare you the ridiculous details of how it happened, but suffice it to say, it hurt like hell. I injured it on a Wednesday, and each day that followed the pain actually escalated. Finally, after a week of being unable to sleep or cough or sneeze or breathe very well and my constant whining about it, my wife made me go to the hospital because she knew that I could have cracked it, and cracked ribs and lungs are a bad combo.

So, we go to the ER and give them my name and they say they’ll have someone out to get me “as soon as they can.” (This, by the way, is the same hospital that claims that you will be seen within 15 minutes of your arrival in their ER. Just sayin’.)

I ended up sitting (and napping) in that waiting room for almost three hours. Finally, upon my realizing that the people who were in that waiting room BEFORE me hadn’t been seen yet either, and I still had to pick up my son Jack from school and get him to Taekwondo practice in less than an hour, I simply put down my two-year-old Highlights magazine, stopped watching the Telemundo on the flat screen television, and walked out. Hey, I tried, right?

No medical professional saw me. No x-rays were taken. No doctor observed me. No meds were given to me. No blood drawn, no MRIs, never got beyond the waiting room, never made me feel better, never gave me a diagnosis. I left there no better or more informed regarding my condition than before I arrived. To quote a popular axiom, those are three hours of my life I can never get back. I went and essentially wasted an afternoon.

So, when I opened my mail last week to discover a bill for $474 from said hospital, I didn’t even know what it was for. I literally was baffled. I thought it was a clerical error. It was only after I called the “customer service” person at the hospital did I discover that they billed me on purpose, they weren’t kidding, and that my bill was for what they called a “triage fee.” That person passed me along to their supervisor, who robotically said the same thing, didn’t answer my question as to whether it was right to get billed for LITERALLY having NO SERVICES rendered (“it is hospital policy, sir” is all they could muster) and then said they would “email” their supervisor to call me.

Needless to say, they’ll hear from me first. And from my insurance company as well, who the hospital had the audacity to also bill to the tune of $285 dollars for my reading their stale magazines and sleeping on 20-year-old benches for hours.

So, I posted all this on my Facebook page. I ranted about it on my show. I said I’d give the hospital 24 hours to “fix this mess” or I’d actually say their name on my show. So, guess what happened five hours after my show ended? C’MON GUESS! That’s right. The hospital brass called. And by brass, I mean “CEO of the Health System.” Apparently, I “should have never been charged” for my time in the waiting room, he was “terribly sorry” for the “mix-up” and that if he “could ever do anything at all” for me to “not hesitate to call.” And by call, he means his cell phone, which he just volunteered to give me. And I kept it. It’s in my cell phone under the name “9-1-1.”

So, clearly, billing people for waiting in the waiting room only is wrong, yes? Well, not if you read this! Apparently, not only does this whole “Waiting Room Charge” happen all over the place, in THIS story, it’s actually defended! Hmmm. What the heck. I know what it is. It was…IN TEXAS!

I know far more egregious and mind-boggling instances of health care nightmares exist in this country, believe me. I guess the sad part is that apparently they happen ONLY in this country. I naturally went off on my morning show about this fraud before this column appeared in the Flyer, and I got this response from my longtime friend Jim, who said:

“That’s just it. NO hospital is a ‘for the people’ company. They may sell you that bill of goods but it’s all about how they can make a buck. The moment you walk in to an ER and speak to a receptionist, the moment your pen hits paper, you’re on the clock. Ethics and morals have nothing to do with it. It’s what they can get away with ’cause they know you have no other option if you want to be seen at that moment. It’s a jacked up system but unfortunately that’s how it is with healthcare. Regardless of if you’re seen or not, they’re gonna find a way to bill you.”

Unless, you know, their staff listens to your morning show.

Jon Williams is a contributor for the Fayetteville Flyer. He also hosts “The Jon Williams Show” mornings on Clear Channel’s 93.3 The Eagle and has lived in Northwest Arkansas for 20 years. Jon’s world revolves around his son Jack and wife Judy, and invites you to join the Loyal and Royal Army of his listeners on Facebook. For more of Jon’s contributions, visit his author page.