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By Martine G. Brousse

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It has become all too common for patients to receive overinflated, incomprehensible, erroneous, unexplained medical bills, sometimes from mystery providers. After all, if all bills were correct and justified, I — and other billing advocates — would be checking job posts.

Patients’ usual reactions are discarding the statement as a mistake, placing it on the to-do list (or is it the never-to-do pile?), waiting for a miracle, appealing the insurance, getting upset at the phone representative or asking nicely for an explanation or a discount which may never come.

Before you give up — or worse, before your account goes to collections — consider these steps.

1. Use your right to question charges

Medical providers are considered to be in the same category as other purveyors of services under state and federal consumer laws. It is your right to ask for a justification or an explanation of a statement or proof services were rendered.

Just as you inquire about a charge on your credit card statement, or an item on the store receipt, you can do so for medical bills.

2. Contest bills in writing

You should contest a balance or request clarification in writing. Address your complaint to the office manager, billing manager or physician. Knowing the name and contact information for the person in charge often leads to prompter responses and better outcomes.

Confirm with the billing department, preferably in writing, that your account is on hold and will not be reported to a collection agency until this grievance has been addressed, as per the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

Specific insurance appeal forms are usually required. These can be found on your insurer’s website.

Send your documents via certified mail or other means that provide confirmation that they have been received.

3. Share the news

If your grievance is with your insurance company, you must inform the interested parties of any delay in payment on your part. You may ask a representative to contact the billing department and ask for your account to be placed on hold, as it is not done automatically. This step should be taken in addition to your written notice.

If a medical provider uses an outside billing service, both offices must be informed. Communication between both parties is all too often infrequent. Avoid costly misunderstandings by mailing two letters.

4. Keep the account current

While the insurance works hard at finding ways to deny your appeal, or when you’re waiting for the facility to mail you an itemized bill or review the charges, you must make small monthly payments to keep your account current. Sending a small monthly remittance shows good faith, confirms your acknowledgement of the outstanding balance and buys you time.

Remember that it is much harder to get a bill reduced once it is in collections. Unless you have confirmation that your account has been placed on hold (and the date it expires), the countdown is on.

5. Update billing departments

Billing people love hearing from patients with unpaid balances (trust me, I know!). It reassures them that you are neither a deadbeat nor trying to pull a fast one. Regular updates will prompt more understanding and patience on their part.

6. Keep good notes

From the first call on, keep a log of calls you made and received, the content of the discussion and subsequent results. Keep a copy of all written correspondence as well. Some providers are more eager to use the collections tool, and this evidence will work in your favor. Insurers keep notes on every call you make or letter you send; so should you.

This documentation may also come in handy if you are forced to go up the corporate ladder, escalating the issue, or eventually file a grievance with a government agency.

In conclusion:

Delaying may end up costing you dearly. Other bills may wait without harmful consequences; medical statements should be looked at promptly.

Timeliness may also become an issue if you decide to file an appeal with your insurance, because a deadline of 90 days is usually the norm. Check the website or your policy for more details.

Nobody likes to wait to get paid when the job is done, and your doctor and hospital are no different. Prompt, precise and courteous communications will be appreciated.