Free Money?

Aug 10 2010 Published by under Cultural Observation, Employment, Ethics, NYC life

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Image: The Baltimore Sun.

I just mailed a letter back to the comptroller for Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital [now: New York-Presbyterian Hospital], which promises a refund for one of several duplicate charges that the hospital levied against me for medical bills that were "unpaid." I know I should be happy about this, but instead, I am very very angry. Why?

I am angry for several reasons. First, every time I told them that I had paid my medical bills, the hospital insisted that I had not, and they refused to accept anything I had to say or give them showing otherwise. I spent months chasing after different people in the hospital billing department and never was assigned one person to act as my contact person who knew my situation. Paperwork I gave them was routinely lost. Eventually, they turned my accounts over to a collection agency, which harassed me mercilessly before taking me to court.

The collection agency lawyers, who at one time pointed out that I was a "deadbeat," were not willing to negotiate with me nor were they willing to act as intermediaries between me and the hospital (who steadfastly refused to listen to me). Instead, in exchange for maintaining my position that I had paid my medical bills, I endured more than one year of harassment, legal threats and numerous early-morning character assaults on the phone levied by strangers.

If that isn't outrageous enough, these lawsuit dramas appear on my credit report, even though I did finally cough up the money to pay the hospital bills (again) -- just as I was leaving the country.

Meanwhile, I have these black marks on my once-spotless credit report, so I was magically transformed from being merely "overqualified" to being "completely unemployable" because I could not "pass" the pre-employment credit check. For those of you who are lucky enough not to be seeking a job in the USA, a credit check is a cruel screening method where employers demand that you give them access to your complete credit history before they hire you for a low-paying blue-collar job. If they don't like what they see, they revoke their job offer.

Unfortunately, some so-called white-collar jobs are starting to demand credit histories, too. I was astonished to discover that "passing" a credit check is required before being hired for an adjunct teaching position at several of the dozens of universities and hundreds of colleges in NYC. How an academic institution can, in good faith, demand that its adjunct professors maintain a spotless credit history on the crap wages they offer is beyond me. These days, adjuncts are nothing more than temporary disposable rent-a-babysitters-for-adults, whose salaries are well below the poverty level, and do not include medical insurance or other benefits -- not even sick days! So given that situation, how can an adjunct reasonably be expected to maintain a clean credit history, unless she is married to someone who supports her "little science teaching hobby"?

My attempts to have the "big three" credit reporting agencies remove these mistakes and other errors (such as listing credit cards that I've never owned, for example) from my credit report has resulted in exactly .. nothing. No response whatsoever, despite me investing many days into writing detailed letters, discussing credit report errors point-by-point, providing photocopies of paperwork to support my statements (when possible), and demanding that these errors be removed or amended on my credit reports. What did I hear from them? A silence that was so loud that the NYC traffic noises were nearly drowned out. I might as well have been locked in a casket being lowered into a hole in the ground.

After fruitlessly trying to get these credit agencies to fix or amend my erroneous credit reports, I eventually ended up threatening legal action, but never followed through because I left the country shortly afterwards. I am sure that my credit reports remain as error-filled and inaccurate today as they were one year ago.

So, at this point, the hospital's offer to refund my money is little more than an incredibly unpleasant reminder of the despair, fear terror and years of un(der)employment that I endured after my postdoc funding ended. The fact that the hospital kept my money for so long and is only now offering to refund it only adds insult to injury (never mind that they are not also refunding the interest they earned by charging me twice and then withholding my money from me, money that I always needed -- sometimes desperately so! And never mind that they are not offering any apologies for fucking up my credit report, which causes me enduring credit and employment issues that continue to this very day).

By the time I'd left the United States, I had completely given up on trying to fix my credit reports, given up (in despair) on ever again pursuing my career in science and I'd even given up on ever again getting a job anywhere, doing anything. At this point, I absolutely refuse to ever again return to live in the United States -- a country where I have been deemed worthless despite my lifelong efforts and sacrifices to make myself into a valued and contributing member of society. I wonder how many other disenfranchised people feel the same way I do?

5 responses so far

  • Pascale says:

    If it's any consolation, we have been threatened with a collection agency by the hospital... that we work for.
    Now, if one of your employees were not paying a bill, would you, perhaps, contact them directly at work to see if they are receiving the bill? You know, just in case they were sending the bill to a college-aged student's apartment instead of the guarantor's home address? Because college students may not realize that they need to forward that bill - or do so at a veeeeery leisurely pace. And would you maybe think twice about threatening your employees for a bill less than $50?
    Situations like this feed right into my husband's anger management issues.
    Of course, if our health care "system" weren't such a god-awful mess, there would be fewer of these issues. The amount of money we spend playing financial tag this way would cover a whole bunch of uninsured people via a single-payor system.
    There I go, dreaming again.

  • Mike says:

    Your story was excellently written. There is a serious need for reform of the credit score agencies. There is nothing more frustrating then a mistake on their part bruising your credit history. To add salt to the wound the credit companies NEVER listen to what they are being told.

  • Kausik Datta says:

    Your experience resonated very well with mine. I have been in that same situation over a medical bill - which was not my responsibility, and the non-payment of which was not my fault either. Yet I had started to receive calls from the collection agency. We stayed in New York City at that time.

    Upon the advice of a friend, I sought help from an unusual quarter - the Attorney Generals Office of New York. Elliott Spitzer was the AG then. I presented my case to them by certified mail, and imagine my surprise, when within just a week I received a reply from the AG's office stating that they would look into the matter. And two weeks after that, the incessant phone calls stopped completely and I received a simple letter from the AG's office informing me that the dispute has been taken care of.

    Perhaps you could take a similar step? Also, I have found that employing the services of a credit monitoring agency is vital, if one wants to stay a step ahead of the system's inequities and vicissitudes.

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