Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Unique Reference Number

I know it must seem like I complain about problems with our healthcare system all the time, but somehow it never ceases to amaze me how difficult insurance companies and providers make it for patients to get the care they need, not to mention the difficulties with paying for it. And it is my (perhaps vain) hope that speaking out about how ridiculous things are can help pave the way to getting them changed.

Take a recent experience I had with my youngest son. He was standing on a chair to help with baking muffins when he lost his balance and fell, hitting his face on the edge of the counter on the way down. He ended up with a cut really close to his eye, so I took him to the emergency room to make sure his eye hadn't been injured and that he didn't need stitches. It was a very quiet morning at the ER. The doctor examined him, confirmed that the eye was not injured and that the cut didn't need stitches, and we were in and out in less than 20 minutes - for which the total charge was $516.93, but that's a complaint for another time!

What I want to talk about here is my portion of the bill. The hospital offered a way to pay it online - which, let's be honest, is the most convenient way for anyone to do anything these days. So I went to the website provided and then figured out how to navigate to the bill pay section, because of course the directions on the bill didn't lead you directly to the correct page. When I got to the bill pay page, it asked for the amount which I entered. It asked for the patient account number, which I was able to find on the bill and enter. Then it asked for the "unique reference number." 

There was nothing labeled with that phrase anywhere on the two page bill. The online form provided no explanation or help as to where to potentially find such a number on the bill. And when I searched the hospital's website for "unique reference number" I got this:

So, in the end, I had no other option but to call and ask. Of course whenever you call an insurance company or hospital you have to navigate through a phone tree. Most of the time they ask you to input your account number on your phone's keypad, and then they immediately ask you to say it out loud again as soon as you get a human on the line - so what was the point of entering it?!? But that's also a complaint for another time. 

When I finally got through all the preliminary questions to "verify my identity" I asked where I could find the "unique reference number" on my bill. And the representative pointed me to this:

Tiny, completely unlabeled numbers on the bottom right-hand corner of the page. How on earth was I supposed to know that?!? After taking a deep breath to control my frustration, I politely asked the representative how patients were supposed to figure that out - and he told me that patients call all the time to ask where to find the "unique reference number" and that I shouldn't feel bad about not being able to figure out out.

But here's the thing: this hospital has created a system that makes it very inconvenient and difficult for patients to pay their bill. And that's not great. But, worse than that, it's also a known problem - an issue that patients are reporting all the time according to the representative - and they have done nothing to solve the problem and improve the patient experience.

And ultimately I think that's a major problem with our healthcare system as a whole. It's an extremely difficult system for patient's to navigate - and that seems to be a known fact. But despite knowing how much patient's are struggling, somehow it's still extremely difficult to institute changes to improve the patient experience - even for known issues that would be extremely simple to fix. And I think that's just terrible.

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