Fake bills and what to do about them
July 8, 2009 11:17 AM   Subscribe

I have in my hand a "Past Due Notice" for my stay in-- and I quote-- "the hospital." It claims to be from Texas Medicine Resources, which is a real company, but the address they want me to mail my $250 to is of course different from the one Google gives me, and besides that there is not a lick of specific information anywhere that would convince me they have any connection to my medical history. Assuming I'm right that justice needs to be served, how can I help that happen?

Now: I did go to the emergency room somewhat recently, because nothing else was open at the time and I was scared of malignant ear tumors or whatever I was imagining I had. They said there was nothing wrong with me, and I could have them check harder, for money, or go home for free. I chose the latter. Does some scammer know about that event? Was it a lucky guess that I might have had a hospital visit in my recent past? Is the whole thing in fact legit?

All I have done so far is open it, squint at it, and run to y'all. There is a number, but I haven't called it in case of advice like "WHATEVER YOU DO, DON'T LET THEM GET YOUR PHONE NUMBER" or something. So, again, the question here is not just "Is this a scam?" (unless it isn't, in which case tell me that), but "What do I do about this now, assuming it is?" Thanks, folks, you're wonderful~
posted by jinjo to Work & Money (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried contacting the hospital you visited directly and asking if you have an outstanding bill? Some quick Google work leads me to believe Texas Medicine Resources may be a collection agency, meaning they're trying to collect for a third party.

The hospital could at least confirm that they have handed a debt over to a collection agency, or give you the ability to pay them directly.
posted by mikeh at 11:25 AM on July 8, 2009

A lot of businesses which have significant amounts of small debts don't try to collect them directly - they sell them at a discount in a bundle on a certain timeline. That's probably what's happened here. It's unlikely that the service provided you wasn't entered into the accounting system in some way. It's possible that someone entered the wrong code and "minimum charge" was entered instead of "no charge". It's also possible that their accounting system can only zero the charge after first raising an invoice.

When debts are sold, the buying agency doesn't usually get detailed information about the debt. You can either ask the business trying to collect for proof of claim or you can talk to the billing department at the hospital.

I have often found that Google searches can pull up outdated contact information.

If it's a scam, you ignore any further contact from the bogus agency and let the hospital pursue the matter through the legal system.
posted by Lolie at 11:36 AM on July 8, 2009

I also think you should talk to the Billing Dept at the hospital you went to. In my experience hospital billing depts are notoriously incompetent, and will refer things to collection at the drop of a hat. Do you have the "if you leave now, it's free" bit in writing from your visit? In any case, dredge up all pertinent paperwork regarding the event you think this might be connected to.

It's probably worth considering that if you received a Past Due notice for something that happened less than 60 or 90 days ago (which are the typical thresholds for something going to overdue status) then you should be doubly suspicious.

If it turns out this is not connected to your visit, it would be wise to report it. Maybe start someplace like http://www.oag.state.tx.us/consumer/scams.shtml
posted by aught at 11:37 AM on July 8, 2009

My local hospital here in NYC sends bills to their collection agency within 10 days of a hospital visit. It's very frustrating.

I generally prefer to pay the hospital directly rather than the agency.

This is how I'd personally handle it:

First, I'd call the agency and tell them that I was resolving this matter directly with the hospital. I'd ask them to note this in their records, so they won't waste time and money pursuing me for an outstanding debt. They probably already have your phone number (from hospital records or public records,) and can harass you whether you give it to them or not. Completely ignoring them and refusing to call will not help matters.

Then, I'd call the hospital and speak to their billing department. I'd tell them that I did not receive a bill, and I would not under any circumstances pay a collection agency without documentation. In this case, that means a proper, hospital-issued bill. They should be able to generate one for you immediately.

If you are polite, friendly and seem confused that they have sent your account to collections when they haven't even billed you yet, then they should be very accommodating. You're interested in paying your bill, after all.

Note: hospitals rarely provide collection agencies with info beyond what's owed. This may be to prevent HIPAA law violation. You probably won't be able to discuss how much specific services cost with anyone other than the hospital.
posted by zarq at 11:43 AM on July 8, 2009

"The hospital?" Fake. Call the hospital to be sure, but you really had a conversation with them about the ER treatment you had, and the treatment that was available to you "for money," I'm guessing there's really no bill. Certainly the hospital would have tried to contact you before sending the amount to collections.

If everything is clear with the hospital, call and tell your state's Attorney General and the AG of the state that the puported collection agency is in.
posted by rhizome at 11:47 AM on July 8, 2009

I would not do this by phone. I'd write to the hospital, saying you never received a hospital-issued bill and that you have been inappropriately contacted by a collection agency without having received such a bill. Demand a proper bill, and demand that any fees be erased. I'd cc the collection agency and the state attorney general's office on the letter. Keep it short and simple. Don't explain about your visit; just say you've been contacted and demand the bill.

I recently spent weeks in an endless loop among a debt collection agency, a health insurer, and a hospital when the hospital admitted by phone the debt was wrongful. It took one letter, cc'ed to all parties, the state AG, and the relevant federal agency, to fix it. After about a dozen phone calls.
posted by palliser at 12:02 PM on July 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

I would not handle this by phone. You can send them a debt validation letter which requires them to prove a lot of things, namely the source of said debt, the exact amount of said debt, that you without a doubt incurred said debt, etc. This should answer all your questions about whether it's actually your debt. If they can't prove that you owe them anything, you can tell them to stop contacting you under the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act. If they keep contacting you, you can report them and they will be fined.

I'd also call the hospital directly to find out if you do have an outstanding balance with them and if so, if you can pay them directly. If you do this, get in writing that the debt has been paid in full and keep that paperwork forever. You might need to fax/send a copy of it to the collection agency if you do owe the hospital something.

You should also pull your credit reports from AnnualCreditReport.com to see if this debt is showing up on your reports. If it is, check back to make sure it is removed when it's paid off.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 12:38 PM on July 8, 2009 [5 favorites]

It doesn't sound like a scam to me. Our local hospital outsources billing and collection, so patients get bills from companies that aren't the hospital. It's highly unlikely that anyone outside of the hospital would know that you were recently in the hospital, if everyone who works there adheres to HIPAA. But you can call the hospital billing department to be sure.
posted by Lobster Garden at 1:48 PM on July 8, 2009

I think it is totally ridiculous, but my local hospital and the associated outpatient clinics will call me and leave messages from "the hospital billing department" (yes, just "the hospital") using a phone number that does not appear on their web site or any of their bills. When this happened I just called the official number and talked to the billing department directly, ignoring the untrusted calls and phone number. It turned out the calls were legitimate, but that does not mean that there is any reason to trust such things.
posted by grouse at 1:52 PM on July 8, 2009

It's probably legit as medical billing practices are more convuluded that the government, but you should call teh hospital and verify your debt / pay them rather than the collection agency.
posted by WeekendJen at 2:36 PM on July 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't know about "The hospital" verbiage necessarily screaming "FAKE!".

16 years ago when my dauighter was born we received a bill from the hospital that said something like "Please verify that these charges are correct" or somesuch.

The bill [direct from Methodist Hospital] looked like this:
GENERAL HOSPITAL ...   $111.00
GENERAL HOSPITAL ...   $222.00
GENERAL HOSPITAL ...   $333.00
PLASTIC PACIFIER ...     $3.00
GENERAL HOSPITAL ...   $444.00
GENERAL HOSPITAL ...   $555.00

I'm not sure how they expected us to confirm or deny any but the one item.
posted by chazlarson at 3:00 PM on July 8, 2009

Yeah, but it did say "Methodist Hospital" somewhere on the bill, right?
posted by rhizome at 3:58 PM on July 8, 2009

>They said there was nothing wrong with me, and I could have them check harder, for money, or go home for free.

This tells me that you do not know much about how hospitals charge for their services. Nothing in medicine is "for free". You were seen and examined, and for that service you should expect a bill.
posted by megatherium at 4:00 PM on July 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yeah, but it did say "Methodist Hospital" somewhere on the bill, right?

Ah, yes. I'd misread the original question. I thought it ID'd the hospital but described the service received as "Stay in the hospital".

Never mind. Nothing to see here.
posted by chazlarson at 5:41 PM on July 8, 2009

Were you actually examined by a doctor or a nurse? Did you give them your contact information? Because if someone besides a triage nurse examined you, I cannot imagine how you would not be charged for that service. Hospitals are not in the business of assessing health for free.
posted by crankylex at 6:24 PM on July 8, 2009

Response by poster: Well... yes. I wasn't expecting to get out of there without owing somebody something, but I did believe it once they told me. I haven't been doing this 'independent adult' thing very long. I'll call The Hospital about it, and take palliser's advice if that doesn't seem to go well.
posted by jinjo at 7:36 PM on July 8, 2009

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