Right now, the healing incision in my belly and the adjustments of my newly rearranged organs give me pain, but nothing really ever compares to the pain of hospital bills, does it? Go ahead and tell me that you’re going to shoot so much poison into my veins that you will have to harvest my stem cells to rebuild my immune system. Make me lie down for long periods of time while you radiate my organs and burn my esophagus so much that I cough pieces of it up weeks later. Slice me open and remove organs and organ pieces and reroute my digestive system so that I’ll end up spending hours in gaseous pain with sore abs. I can handle that, even when I have moments when I am sure I can’t anymore.

Show me a hospital bill or an explanation of benefits, though, and my eyes glaze over and I fall apart. I’d rather deal with gauze than red tape. I will try to put on a brave face while nurses try to find a vein in my beat-up arms, but when it comes to the bills, I want to cry and scream that I just don’t want to. A phone call with hospital billing or insurance lasting more than a few minutes throws me into Kafka-esque pits of existential despair. When the bills arrive, just looking at them makes me want to eschew modern society, but then I remember that I am a product of the modern age and would do terribly in any other period of time. I know I need to stop being such a baby and learn how to deal with this stuff.

Still, figuring out medical bills and health insurance is hard for everyone—even for people smarter than me. Some people who even deal with this kind of thing for a living come across snags in the system. I once heard a story from an insurance/HR person who had an MRI done at a hospital that was covered by her insurance, but—surprise!—a doctor not covered by her insurance showed up at some point and ended up on her bill. Eventually, she had it taken off her bill, but the health care system is often a huge pain.

My billing experiences with Sloan-Kettering have been pretty straightforward (knock on wood) and last time, my insurance company was pretty good about working with them. I hope that’s the case this time. It’s one of the reasons I opted for MSKCC over NYU Langone for my Whipple procedure. I feel constantly confused by NYU Langone’s billing system, and after some conversations today, it seems as if they, too, are confused by their billing system. It comforts me to know that I am not alone, but it alarms me that the very people sending me bills are also confused.

Yesterday, I got an automated call letting me know that I had to pay $275 to NYU Langone or it would go to collections. I was given the option of paying right away, but I didn’t have a credit card handy and I wanted to look into it. I wrote down the amount and then called back today to try to pay it. I called the number to pay a bill, but then the person said it couldn’t be handled at that number because it wasn’t a hospital bill, but a doctor bill, and apparently those are handled separately because that’s not confusing at all.

I was transferred and I asked about the $275 bill, and they said I had a $500 bill and $50 past due bill (the one, I think, that pretty quickly went to collections and that I just sent a check out for). But what about the $275? No one seems to know anything about that amount. She transferred me to another number and told me to press option #2, which I did, and then I ended up with her again. She apologized and said there must be a high volume of calls and told me they would call me back.

In the meantime, I tweeted to NYU Langone and got a reply to call Patient Relations. I called Patient Relations, but they said they weren’t the people to talk to. The woman there was nice and tried to be helpful, but in the end, I don’t feel as if much was accomplished. She was going to suggest someone in a financial department, but they handle only inpatient bills (it seems as if there are a lot of divisions when it comes to bills). She said there’s a $200 balance (separate from the $500 and the $50, I guess) that won’t go to collections for another three months, but I am free to call and pay that now.

I still don’t know where the $275 or the automated call came from. It’s possible, she said, that the call came from billing. But why such an arbitrary amount? I feel like a frightened retiree they’re trying to swindle. They are one step away from calling and telling me I’ve won a free cruise. In the end, I spent about a total of 25 minutes on the phone today and got no real answer, paid no bills, and am still unsure about what happened.

In the meantime, I think I’ll ignore NYU’s confusing bills, though I have a nagging suspicion that one of them is going to collections somewhere. Hopefully by then, I’ll be on an island somewhere enjoying my free cruise after I hand over my Social Security number.

Update: After an all-day back-and-forth, I finally spoke to someone, paid part of the bill and got on a six-month payment plan. There’s no record of the mysterious automated call that I got, which is weird.

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