Tuesday, February 05, 2002

I WAS READY for war.

Monday morning was my first chance to respond, beyond yelling and breaking things in my own home, to a bill I received Friday and opened early Saturday morning, after a long night at work.

It was the kind of bill I had seen many times before, though not recently. A medical test that is covered by my HMO is done by an extortionary, profiteering lab that double-bills, hoping to frighten the patient into paying something the insurance company also paid. These labs use language like LABORATORY CHARGES ARE SEPARATE FROM YOUR DOCTOR'S CHARGES and THIS BILL IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY and WE HAVE NEVER HEARD OF INSURANCE. AS YOU MAY HAVE GUESSED, OUR COLLECTION STAFF IS MUCH LARGER THAN OUR SCIENTIFIC STAFF. Stuff like that.

This bill ruined my weekend. I didn't want to return to the days when I was covered by one of the other HMO giants, which itself sent out scary, threatening faux bills with every doctor's appointment and didn't bother to pay its affiliated doctors on time, leaving me yelling at collection agents like a piece of "Jerry Springer" trash. I go the HMO route, with all the bullshit that entails, precisely because I don't want to deal with claims and submission forms and medical bills aside from that $5 or $10 (OK, now it's $15) deductible. I've never understood that "We pay 80 percent and you pay ONLY 20 percent" insurance that other people seem so fond of. Medical bills are insane, and 20 percent of a billion dollars is a lot of money.

Anyway, I was ready for war. On Saturday night my wife and I watched an excellent HBO documentary about the unpleasantness at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and afterward we said the usual things about how the Middle East is full of crazy motherfuckers. Then I stopped myself. No, I said, I sort of understand.

It was with this mind-set that I approached a series of phone calls aimed at straightening all this out. For, you see, straightening all this out was nothing but a utopian dream. No, I knew I was doomed. Surely the HMO fine print left me without recourse; at the very least I would have to petition to get my 67 bucks back. And so my real goal was to kick and scream as much as I could on the way to defeat.

I had calmed down quite a bit since early Saturday morning. I'd try my doctor and my insurance company first, to get some perpective on how the cretins at the lab might have erroneously come to the conclusion that I owed them money. But the advertised wait to talk to the insurance company was too long, and I could only leave a message for the doctor. So I'd be talking to the lab. Even there, I had engineered a kinder, gentler line of questioning, if only to keep from being hung up on.

"Look, I know you have this double-billing scam going. You make plenty of money off other people, so I tell you what: You leave me the fuck alone and I won't be on the phone with the attorney general and the Better Business Bureau."

"I'm sorry; I don't mean to yell at you. I know you're only an assistant criminal. Could I speak to the head criminal, please?"

I knew my jabs would be greeted with scolding or silence, if not "click." If it at least wasn't "click," I had Plan A ready. This was my Saturday-morning stuff, Vile, vile, all's-fair-in-war stuff. You might want to avert your eyes.

"Sir, you're saying I owe you 67 dollars? Do you mean to tell me that I fucked your wife and I don't even remember it?"

I have no shame when it comes to things like this, but I won't be committing to ASCII characters the female-operator version of that last remark.

I dialed up the lab and, indeed, got a female operator. I started on a polite note, asking why I was billed in the first place. She said the company had no record of any insurance for me.

"Jesus f—"

"What was that?"

"I spent three hours filling our your forms; how could you not have that information?"

"What's the insurance company and the policy number?"

Just like that. Efficient as hell, and she apologized and told me I could tear up the bill.


I told my wife that, before the happy ending, I hadn't been so mad since that incident at the Cincinnati airport.

"Huh?" she said. (It was the Columbus airport. I'm old enough for a lot of things at 40; I just didn't think senility would be one of them.)

At the Columbus airport last month, on our way back from Las Vegas, I was so amused at having to board the little plane back to Washington via tarmac and staircase that I pulled out my teensy little Canon Digital Elph and went to snap a picture of Jacqueline boarding.

The photo that almost got me machine-gunned.

"SIR? SIR!" I heard as I did this. I knew it was one of the machine-gun-toting fellows we had just walked past, and yet I endured seveal more "SIR"s as I calmly snapped the picture. For all my contempt for authority figures, I've lived my life as a pretty darn obedient guy. Maybe it was the juxtaposition with the picture-taking. I own that particular camera because I am so self-conscious, I would never be seen walking around with a camera. I was never the picture-taking type, not even close, until Canon invented a camera I could stick into just about any pocket. (It's the camera for the shy! I'm a shudderbug! How was I to know this was the official camera of Mohammed Atta?) There's something uniquely embarrassing and infuriating about being chastised for doing something you're making a psychological stretch to do in the first place, and that's the way Mr. Machine Gun registered with me. Jacqueline keeps saying the issue was that I strayed from the prescribed path on the tarmac, but I maintain that the guy was just a fuckhead.

"BITE me!" I opined after snapping the picture. Either the plane's engine noise drowned out that sentiment or the fuckhead was a merciful fuckhead, but I was ready to go, I think. I probably would have curled up like a chastened puppy if anything had happened, but I remember being all set to rain Ali-vs.-Cleveland Williams* punches on the heavily armed young turk. I remained that way through the flight.

On the night of the night of the phone call that didn't, as it turned out, escalate to the level of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I talked to my wife about these recent episodes of surprising fury. She mentioned something about my needing to go to Reno for some anger-management classes. (If that allusion escaped you, you might want to check out the work of Matt Weatherford. The anger-management class has been a comedic touchstone for Matt, as hat blocking and string collecting were to the young, written-word Woody Allen.)

*Yes, his name was Cleveland. Not Columbus. I'm not that senile.

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