Last July, I found myself needing to visit a doctor for an urgent medical issue. My period had started in April and never stopped. It was light, so it wasn’t too much of an annoyance, but after three months I figured I needed professional help.
I had started graduate school in Michigan the year before and was back home in California for the summer. I wasn’t sure if the new insurance that I paid over $2,000 per year for through the school would cover a doctor’s visit in a different state. I called the insurance company to check and they said they cover any doctor in the country. Happy to hear this, I called and made an appointment with the doctor I had been seeing for years.
Though my insurance had changed, my doctor’s appointment was the same as always, I just had a slightly higher co‐pay. I had a routine check‐up and the doctor ordered some blood tests to help diagnose my problem. Within a few weeks, the doctors figured out what was wrong and cured it. I returned to school in September happy and healthy. As far as I knew, my business with the doctor was finished.
While in California for the summer I didn’t have a permanent address. I stayed with friends for a few weeks at a time and house‐sat for other friends while they were on vacation. This arrangement allowed me to live cheaply for the summer and save money for school. However, when the doctor’s office asked for a local address, I didn’t have one. I gave them the address of a good friend I was staying with, figuring my friend would tell me if mail arrived for me at her house. Although I wasn’t expecting to receive any mail, I tried to have my mail forwarded to my school address at the end of summer, just to be safe. The Postal Service said they were unable to forward my mail because my school address was considered a business address and they don’t forward from residential addresses to business addresses. This frustrated me, but as I said, I wasn’t expecting any mail anyway.
Around October I received a call from a representative of the doctor’s office saying I had an unpaid bill in the amount of around $100. I told her that I had moved back to Michigan and never received a bill. She said she understood. She allowed me to pay my bill over the phone with a credit card and updated my address in her files. A week later I received a voicemail about an unpaid bill from the same office and dismissed it; I had just paid my bill a week earlier.
In November the friend I had stayed with in California informed me that she had a stack of mail for me that she had forgotten about and would send it right away. When I got this mail, I saw that there were several copies of an unpaid bill from the doctor in the amount of $1,500, and they were threatening to send my account to a collection agency. I was shocked and horrified. I didn’t have $1,500, so I couldn’t pay it. I was also heading into finals season at school, so I didn’t have much time to sit around and think about what to do with this bill.
A few months later I got a letter from a collection agency saying that I now owed them $1,500. I realized I couldn’t ignore the bill any longer and called my doctor’s office. A representative at the office told me the bill was for blood tests and mailed me an itemized bill, which had never previously been sent to me at any address. She also said that my insurance should have paid for it and that I should ask them about it. I called the insurance company and they said that my plan “doesn’t include all diagnostic tests.” So that was that. I was stuck with this $1,500 bill that I never saw coming and couldn’t pay.
As a graduate student, 100% of my income was student loans. Financial aid very specifically only covers school expenses and minimal living expenses, including my health insurance premiums. However, there isn’t an “unexpected, huge, medical bills” line in my financial aid award. No amount of frugal living would have allowed me to pay this bill. How else should I have handled this situation? Would I have been better off just bleeding indefinitely?
Kimberly Seelye is a graduate student at the University of Michigan.
Costs of Care (Twitter: @CostsOfCare), where this post was originally published, is a Boston-based nonprofit organization that collects anecdotes from doctors and patients. We feel these stories are poignant because they put a face on some of the known shortcomings of our system, and also because they unveil how commonplace and pervasive these types of stories happen.