Tilting at Bureaucratic Windmills

If you listen closely, you can hear the steady drumbeat reverberating around the world. That would be the sound of my head slowly and rhythmically hitting my desk.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

I’m doing it out of frustration, but it does have an upside. While it makes my head hurt, it also takes my mind off the reason why I’m head-banging.

It began simply enough two weeks ago. Opening a letter from our international medical insurance company (located in another European country), I scanned quickly and saw that they’d paid a bill. A small balance remained, which we were expected to pay.

That’s odd, I thought, reading further. I don’t recall any hospital-related charges in November. Hey, I don’t remember ANY visit to the hospital…

I was right in the middle of a crazy, hectic day with barely enough time to breathe. Thinking that perhaps it was a simple case of a previous flu vaccination received at my doctor’s office being coded as a hospital cost, I set the letter aside.

That is, until I received the bill from the local Dutch hospital the next day.

Again, the balance remaining was to be paid immediately for services rendered during my visit to the Emergency Room on such-and-such a date.

Except that I hadn’t been to the ER. (Knock on wood, of course.)

I immediately called the administrative office cited on the hospital bill.

‘Goede middag, mevrouw,’ I said to the woman who answered, deciding that this was not the time for a disjointed conversation involving my mediocre Dutch. ‘Mijn nederlands is niet zo goed. Sprecht u engels, alstublieft?’

We exchanged perfunctory pleasantries and then got down to business. I was explaining the situation and how there must have been some mistake as I hadn’t been to her hospital for treatment when I was immediately interrupted.

‘Yes you were. You received treatment here. It’s in the system,’ she stated matter-of-factly.

Say what?

I explained that no, I hadn’t actually been to ER, there had to be a mistake. I haven’t been to Hospital XXX for more than two years…

‘You were treated in the Emergency Room in November, on the date indicated. Your insurance company has paid their share, and you owe the balance. We’ve sent you a bill.’

To be fair, the tone was not accusatory, as in ‘pay up you conniving deadbeat trying to weasel out of paying your share’. Nor was it threatening. But it certainly wasn’t puzzled either, as in ‘hmm, I wonder what’s happened. Let’s take a look, shall we?’

Nope. Just flat out ‘this is how it is. I’ll repeat it in case you are having a difficult time hearing me’.

Now there are many things that the Dutch are known for: dykes, land reclamation, good beer, flavorful cheese, tulips and windmills. Customer service? Eh, not so much.

I went back and forth a couple times with Ms Brick Wall.

‘Obviously there has been some sort of mistake because I didn’t come to your hospital, I didn’t receive any treatment. Organizations are made up of human beings, and human beings are fallible. People make mistakes. Someone probably called up our last name and selected the wrong file to charge.’

Despite the fact that our family name was #7 on the list of most common Dutch surnames last year, she simply couldn’t fathom that something in the system wasn’t accurate. It was in the system, for heaven’s sake.

It wasn’t until I finally dropped the f-bomb that I was able to shake her out of her trance. No, not THAT f-bomb.

‘Look. I did not seek treatment at your ER. So either there is a data entry error mistakenly charging my account, or else there is some fraud involved.’

That got her attention. Saying she’d check with the Emergency Room office staff and call me back, she hung up.

The phone rang ten minutes later.

‘No, you were here on November 19th and received treatment in the ER.’

At that point I realized that I was getting nowhere with The Wall, so I requested the number of the ER administrative office.

I’d like to say that a call to that office straightened it out. It didn’t. I did learn that a female patient had come to the ER on that date with a referral letter from her doctor and a wound to her right foot. She received treatment and medication.

‘We gave you a prescription before you left,’ the ER office manager insisted.

Except that I don’t have a wound on my right foot (and never did), I am not a patient of the doctor writing the referral, I didn’t come to the ER, I didn’t receive treatment or medication, blah blah blah.

At one point she even had the audacity to say that they shouldn’t be speaking with me, they would deal only with the insurance company.

‘But they’re just going to come back to me to verify that I didn’t receive this treatment, and then we’re back in this silly do-loop all over again.’

I hung up from this Alice-in-Wonderland encounter, practically shaking in frustration and disbelief. After a half hour of deep breathing exercises to peel myself off the ceiling, I called back to the ER.

Getting the same woman on the line, I suggested their contacting the referring physician’s office to see whether they could shed any light on the situation. After all, the woman in question likely shares our last name. And if that doctor didn’t write the referral, well then we’d be dealing with a whole other situation, wouldn’t we?

‘Oh, that is not necessary,’ she informed me. ‘I spoke with the administrative office and we are going to take the charge off your account. You do not have to pay anything.’

How nice, I thought. Gee, I wonder whether you were going to bother calling me to tell me that.

‘What about the money my insurance company paid?’ I asked instead.

‘You do not need to pay anything. We have taken the charge off your account,’ came the robotic reply.

‘And my insurance company? They shouldn’t be paying for a service I didn’t receive,’ I said, trying to mask my incredulity that I should have to point this out.

‘Yes, okay. We will credit the payment back to your insurance company.’

I hung up, feeling drained but with a glimmer of satisfaction that the issue had been resolved. To be on the safe side, I sent an explanatory email to our insurance company.

Fast forward to a couple days ago when I received a reply from our account manager at the insurance company thanking me profusely for the information. No, they had not received the credit, but would take it up with the hospital.

Breathing a sigh of relief that the issue was now in capable hands, I closed the email. All was right in the world.

That is, until I checked the mail yesterday. Spying a letter from the hospital, I tore it open assuming it was a receipt for the correction of the account. Maybe there would even be a teeny tiny sentence of apology for the error and subsequent confusion.

Guess again. It was a letter reiterating the need to pay the outstanding balance. Oh, and a 50 Euro late payment fee as well.

Thump. Thump. Thump.








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