My jaw dropped.
“Excuse me?” I roared into the silence of my kitchen, “they bill me nearly double what they promised the sleep apnea test would cost?”
I threw the bill onto the countertop. With my left hand, I balled up the white envelope that had carried this bombshell. The wad of paper tightened into a hard, angry mass and drove deep into my palm. Both temples pounded with the same thumping beat that now filled my chest.
Get a grip! a voice bellowed from deep inside of me. Find their number then call. There’s a mistake here somewhere.
I picked up the bill, found the number then stopped.
Deep breath, slow down, the internal voice spoke with a foreign calm. Stay sane and rational, be the cool-hand customer.
I dialed. A whispery soprano—sounding young enough to be my first grandchild—answered.
“Yes, ma’am, I received a bill today from your hospital and am calling for clarification on the amount that is being charged, please,” I said in as sweet a tone as I could muster.
Suddenly, I heard tap-tap-tapping sounds echoing through the phone line as if the young woman had morphed into a whiz-bang keyboardist pounding away in a speed drill.
“Patient identification number?” she piped up, throwing me off guard.
More keyboard tapping. After a detailed recitation of my vitals, we began round one.
“The night of my test, I was told I would owe only an additional $1,000,” renewed confidence surged into my voice. “Of course, that’s on top of the $2,112 I paid for the basic sleep study. I do not understand this extra charge for $778. Can you please clarify?”
Papers rustled through the phone. Twenty seconds. Thirty. After nearly a minute of silence, an alien voice, now speaking in even higher soprano tones, bursts through the phone like a rocket launching from Cape Canaveral.
“Our records show we clearly told you that the numbers we quoted were only an estimate,” she said, “and your bill reflects the remaining balance that you owe.”
My brain skipped with instant confusion.
“You’re not answering my question,” my vocal cords began to tighten. “What is the $778 expense for?”
“It’s the remaining balance on your bill,” she spoke louder, as if I had not heard her the first time.
Exasperation filled my throat. Keep cool, the now-familiar adult voice chimed back. You’re the adult and she’s the kid here.
“Yes, you told me that already,” I repeated. “I’m asking specifically where the $778 expense came from. Can you please answer that for me?”
A loud sigh responded. “The amount on your bill is what you owe now that the tests are completed.”
Blood thundered into my temples, drumming with a persistent heavy-metal beat.
“I was never told that there would be what you call ‘a remaining balance,” I cranked up my voice to mimic her volume. “Why is this amount of $778 being charged to me? A bill I never expected to get, by the way.”
“This is the amount you owe since the tests have been completed. By the way, this balance is due at the end of the month.”
“Ma’am, excuse me, but you’re going in circles and not answering my one simple question,” full-blown frustration hardened every word I spoke. “Tell me straight—what is the $778 expense?”
“It’s the difference between the estimate and the final balance,” she repeated.
“I was never quoted a $778 figure, either on the phone or in person,” I said. “Where is this new number coming from?”
“It’s coming from our final costs,” her voice grew more determined, matching my own change in tactics, “the first number was an estimate and this is the final number now that the testing is completed.”
I didn’t like her tone. Reversing strategy, I headed another direction.
“How many years has your hospital chain—the largest in Houston, by the way—been conducting sleep apnea tests?” I whispered, hoping my soft tone and left-field question would throw her off-center.
Good, she’s off script, I smirked then crossed my fingers, my heart revving up for the next verbal punch. Maybe there’s a financial reprieve hidden in her quiet?
“We can only estimate how much any procedure will cost,” her sing-song pitch had vanished. “We cannot determine precise numbers until we complete our full work.”
“Let me repeat my simple question: how many of these sleep tests has your hospital chain conducted?” I said, anger seeping into every cell of my body. “Surely you folks can add “x” to “y” to make “z,” especially after all 40-plus years of apnea testing?”
“Every test is different,” came the robotic reply.
“You are evaluating how people sleep, for heaven’s sake,” I laughed—surely, hearing that, even she felt stupid. “We lay down, you cover us in electrodes then you watch us sleep. This is neither brain surgery nor a heart transplant.”
“Every test,” she stumbled over the simple words, “is, uh, different.”
“You know what your costs are,” I pushed harder. “One nurse and one technician mean hourly wages plus benefits then a sleep doctor to read their printout. You paid off the beds and linens years ago.”
“Hello?” I asked to no response.
Inexplicably, the air changed in that long pass of seconds. She coughed. I cocked my head.
“Your bill is the final amount that is due,” a newborn ferocity graced her syllables. I wondered if her boss was standing over her. A flash of intuitive knowing filled my brain as she tried to continue, “the bill…”
I cut her off.
“What you’re saying is that I have no recourse. The bill’s the bill and that’s it?” defeat seeped into my brain, overtaking my earlier burst of moxie. My body sagged. Somehow I knew the fight was over.
“The bill for $1778 is your remaining balance,” she repeated herself for the nth time.
Suddenly a burst of artistic insight popped into my mind like a jack-in-a-box. I laughed, abandoning the frustration of the previous nanosecond.
“I’ve got it!”
My memory flashed back to the test night. Before I went to sleep, the tech had handed me a cheap bundle of plastic.
“This face mask is our gift, something to take home after we finish your sleep test,” he spoke with an earnestness that matched his youth. I squelched the urge to remind him that Santa had come two days earlier.
The woman on the phone whispered back to life.
I ignored her stutter.
“I came to your hospital for a sleep study and got an unexpected bonus,” a spate of giggles overtook my diction. I no longer cared. “A cheap face mask for only $778—and new piece of art for my house!”
A dozen hours later, the sleep mask graced a glass head that sported a free-spirited butterfly, $778 in play money, and mirrored sunglasses covered in bling—just like today’s hipsters and hospital types. By the following morning, I had penned this story.