Kevin Hunt: Aetna Botches Autopay Deduction, Wipes Out Her Bank Account

Even by current standards of escalating healthcare premiums, a monthly $243 autopay deduction that becomes $1,017, without notice, and wipes out the insured's bank account is a shocker.

Kate of East Granby was equal parts outraged and alarmed when Aetna withdrew more than four times the anticipated bill in June, leaving her with less than $30 for monthly expenses. She knew immediately it was a mistake and so, too, did Aetna. But that didn't get the $774 overcharge back into her account any faster.

"I luckily found this error the day it was made," she told The Bottom Line in mid-June, "but trying to rectify it in an acceptable manner has been a nightmare."

Kate, who requested that TBL not use her surname, immediately called her bank, which agreed not to charge overdraft fees on checks she had written recently. No one at Aetna could expedite the refund by transferring the money the same way it was withdrawn, electronically and instantly. That's how banking works — it takes time.

"After many phone calls," she says, "they admitted the error but cannot reimburse my account for 'three to 10' business days. Unfortunately, this has caused serious financial implications for me."

Aetna, after Kate filled out a disclosure form allowing the company to discuss her case with The Bottom Line, quickly acknowledged the mistake.

"Unquestionably," says Susan Millerick, an Aetna spokeswoman, "that was our error in withdrawing those funds. What happened, it seems, was the error was that we charged her for a rate increase. She did not have a rate increase. We had an error in her system."

The rate hike, says Millerick, was charged for June and, retroactively, through last November at $86 a month. Eight months added $688. The current premium was $329, creating an out-of-nowhere $1,017 payment.

Kate, now scrambling to pay other monthly bills, wanted the money returned ASAP.

"I heard nothing from them about any increase and I spoke with at least 10 different people," she says. "At one point someone in LA told me they were 'having difficulty with their billing.'"

Kate says she complained to Aetna on the 17th, left six messages for a supervisor the next day, then filed a written complaint with the company. On the 20th, she says, a supervisor called. She still didn't know if she could receive the refund any quicker.

"The stress regarding having no cash and no answers was completely frustrating," she says.

Kate says she contacted the state Insurance Department and Mark Bertolini, Aetna's president and chief executive officier. Then she contacted The Bottom Line.

Aetna provided a computer screen-grab of the refund history that showed approval on June 19 and electronic payment on June 20. In a letter to the state Insurance Department, Aetna also confirmed Kate's suspicions about the rate hike: It included retroactive premiums for her son, whose coverage had been canceled last October.

""While there is no statutory requirement on how a refund must be processed," says Donna Tommelleo, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Department, "the Department expects carriers to be thorough and prompt when a member is owed a refund. If a policyholder has any issues, we encourage them to contact the Department for assistance."

Kate says the refund didn't appear in her account until June 23, a week after she contacted Aetna. But that wasn't Aetna's fault. That's how electronic banking usually works. Aetna also offered to reimburse Kate for any overdraft fees.

"If I were missing $774, I would feel it," says Millerick. "We are very sorry. And I hope she was told that directly by member services. I'm not sure they handled it well."

Kate can confirm that. No one called.

In early August, however, she received three letters from Aetna in a single envelope. Two indicated her health coverage had been terminated May 14 for non-payment and a third informing her it had been reinstated the next day. Kate says she called Aetna and was told to disregard each letter.

By then, she was ready to offer this headline to The Bottom Line:

"My Health Insurance Is Making Me Sick."

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