Bills, Real and Unreal

Several thousand dollars worth of bills await me on the dining room table. I am urgently advised, the cover letters all say, to pay them in a timely fashion. I image the bills milling around me like hungry cats, each angling for my attention: “Feed ME first;” “No, feed ME, i’m HUUNGRY!” “No, ME, ME, ME!”

Sadly for them, I liken bills to fine wine or cheese; I prefer to let them age. Especially big ones.

I owe six hundred dollars to a lumber yard that tried to dun me for somebody else’s bill. Twice. I owe several thousand for the deductible on my recent hospitalization. I owe the surgeon, the anesthesiologist, the hospital, the primary care medical group, and even the emergency room. Everybody bills separately these days.

I always pay actual people on time; and that includes local small businesses which consider themselves members of the community.

The self-employed workmen who re-sided and painted and repaired our house this year? We had a relationship; we treated each other with respect. So why wouldn’t I pay them on time? My checks were their livelihood. And we’ve all got to live.

But institutions? EVIL! Institutions aren’t alive, and they aren’t people, though they’re made of people. Today’s institutions, many of them, bill early and pay late. They demand as much as they can get, deliver as little as they can get away with. Corporations are the worst; but even public institutions, starved for money, are raising fees and fines while shrinking services.

I give them all the respect they deserve. I pay — eventually. It’s a small rebellion.

Once, I didn’t pay. A couple of years back we closed our account with AT&T, and they delivered us a final billl after we were told we’d paid everything: $79. While we argued back and forth with them, they abruptly stopped talking and sold the debt to a collection agency which was on us in a flash.

Since then I’ve made a hobby of not paying that bill. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not real. AT&T just claimed it was.

At any rate, there’s not much a collection agency can do if you don’t pick up the phone or sign for the certified mail. Not for seventy nine bucks. I just let the answering machine take all the calls. Don’t worry; if you prove to be a real person, I always pick up.

The bill has passed through at least five different collection bureaus: when one can’t collect, it sells the debt to another at a reduced price. The bill must go for no more than a few bucks now, because they’ve started offering me discounts if I’ll just pay what I owe. Or what somebody claimed I owed, once upon a time.

And you have to start wondering how much debt is really “real,” when somebody can just say you owe them something, and then start compounding the bill with fees and late charges and penalties that you “agreed” to by not reading the three thousand words of fine print that they knew you wouldn’t read.

The hospital’s official bill for my overnight stay — not counting the surgeon and the anesthesiologist and all the rest — was $39,000. For an overnight stay. How real is that? The insurance company “negotiated” the price down to seven thousand, and I only paid a fraction of that. But I’m not even sure that price is real.

And yet if I’d walked in the front door without insurance, I’d be on the hook for the thirty-nine thousand. For one day’s stay for an infected thumb. So what’s the real price? What’s the real debt? Who owes what to whom?

Dangerous words. In the days of slavery, the slaveholders lived high – yet lived in fear of slave rebellions. In the same way, in the heart of every financier there must live a cold spot of fear that all the debt they own, buy, and sell might someday not be paid. That we might just decide not to, and walk away. It happened in 2009, with over-priced houses whose value had crashed.

And yet the moneymen are doing all they can to make it happen again. When all but a few are struggling, who’s going to pay all those debts? And what will happen to them if they don’t try to? In the semi-immortal words of Bob Dylan, “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

Must be something about extreme wealth that causes insanity. That’s all I can figure. We shall see. Indeed we shall. Barring surprises, I’ll live long enough to see it from the cheap seats.

In the meantime, I still have something to lose. And the bills are waiting. Grrrrr.



4 thoughts on “Bills, Real and Unreal

  1. Katie (Nature ID)

    Eh, I’m one of those you hear about in the news whose health insurance plan is getting cancelled. But, what isn’t mentioned is that my insurance company let me know over a year ago that my plan was going bye-bye. I didn’t like my options last year, and I have doubts I’ll like anything I can find now. And, no, given the current confusion, I haven’t even started looking again for a new plan for the new year.

    That aside, when I had my bicycle accident this summer, the ambulance bill pretty much took care of my entire high deductible. We weren’t prepared to shell out an unexpected few thousand dollars in one fell swoop, so I called them up to see if I could sign up for a payment plan. Lookie here, just for asking, if I set up a 12 month payment plan they would reduce my charge by 50%. Here’s the kicker, if I paid in full, they would give me an 80% discount. Really? Really. I paid the 20% in full on the spot. Had I not called and gone online to pay, I would have been responsible for the entire amount. It boggles my mind.

    1. admin Post author

      Katie: sorry about your bike accident. And of course the word is that your health insurance plan now need not be cancelled. What the insurer does, of course, is up to them.

      Very interesting about the ambulance; I had no idea they’d negotiate. As I said in the post, what’s the real price of anynthing anymore. I’ll definitely keep your experiences in mind. Rhumba needed an ambulance about a year ago: 2500, and her managed-care plan didn’t cover it. Except, after the first bill, we never heard from them again. It turns out that managed care plans that don’t cover ambulance, sometimes decide to pay anyway. And never say anything. We have no idea. But if there’s a next time, and they decide _not_ to pay, I’ll ask.

      But the really big bad surprise health care cost in these parts is, helicopters. The local hospital doesn’t have much of an acute care unit, so they routinely shuffle accident victims onto medivac choppers and fly them over the hill to San Jose or Stanford. Twenty thousand dollars, it costs, and insurance _doesn’t_ cover it. How’d you like that for a surprise? Here’s the kicker, and I don’t know whether to be pleased or appalled. The medivac operator sells insurance: fifty bucks a year. If you have to ride the helicopter, it costs you nothing. The odds are still in his favor; the house always wins. But — $20,000? I’m considering it.

  2. LK

    Our lives seem to be running on parallel tracks these days. We too have an outstanding bill with a communications company (who shall be unnamed here) that we disputed and that they sent to claims. And we have regular messages on our phone service telling us we need to take care of this bill, urgently! These calls make CC nervous, but I’m like you and have sort of made it a hobby NOT to pay this bill. It’s well under $100 and I doubt they can do much but continue to phone harass us for the next year or two. At which point, it will probly be retired as “bad debt.”

    I have friends who have needed emergency medical care within the last couple of years. They are indigent however, so basically once it is established that they can’t afford to pay for their medical bills, they seem to be left alone, mostly. One of them keeps getting these regular statements from the hospital for stuff, but I get the feeling that no one expects my friend to ever pay for anything. Very strange system.

    1. admin Post author

      I think our lives are on parallel tracks because we’re the same age, roughly the same background, and live in the America that is. I hear that 1 in every 7 Americans has a collection agency after them. Some of them are in deep financial trouble, but I suspect that the rest are finding, like you and I, that in the name of cash flow corporations will now sell a disputed bill to a collection agency in the blink of an eye. You and I don’t care that much, but for those who have little except credit to their name, it’s a control mechanism: pay up or we’ll take your credit rating into an alley and knee-cap it.

      It is a very strange system; as the human resources guy said when discussing our new health plans, “Welcome to health care — as constructed by the for-profit insurance companies of America.”


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