Problem Solver: Ambulance ride ends in billing headache

When she called for an ambulance July 9, 2011, Jane Love feared she was having a heart attack.

A city of Chicago emergency crew responded immediately and transported her to Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

The care, Love said, was amazing. The city Emergency Medical Services employees were efficient and helpful.

At the hospital, Love learned that her chest pains were actually esophageal spasms – contractions of the muscles in her esophagus that are sometimes mistaken for pain from a heart attack.

A relieved Love was given a clean bill of health.

But the real pain came later, when Love realized she had unwittingly fallen into the bottomless pit of aggravation known as the city's EMS billing system.

Last February the Problem Solver wrote about Jackie Vossler, the Chicago resident who was transported by a city ambulance but never received a bill for the service. The column struck a nerve with many readers – several dozen wrote in with tales of similar frustrations.

The common refrain in all of the complaints was that the patients had received excellent care from the EMS employees, but lousy service from the city's billing department. In case after case, patients complained that the city never sent a bill.

In almost every circumstance, the patients learned they owed the city money after getting a threatening letter from the city's collection agency, Harris & Harris, Ltd. By then, months and sometimes years had passed, in some cases making it impossible for the patients to file an insurance claim.

When the Problem Solver inquired about the patients' complaints last year, the city vowed to make changes to its EMS billing system.

But Love's experience indicates some problems linger.

The Arlington Heights resident said that neither she nor her insurance company received any bills for the ambulance ride until Dec. 28, 2011, when she received a collection letter demanding $990.

She paid by check Jan. 1, 2012, then submitted paperwork to her insurance company seeking reimbursement. The insurance company asked for a detailed bill from the city.

In March 2012, the city sent a bill for the ambulance ride to the insurance company, which promptly paid the city $868.50, the cost of the ride minus Love's deductible.

Love quickly realized that the city had been paid twice -- $990 by her, and another $868.50 by her insurance company.

In the months that followed, Love and her husband called the city repeatedly asking for a refund of the $868.50 overpayment, they said. Repeatedly they were promised a refund within a month. Repeatedly, that refund failed to materialize.

After many fruitless calls, Love said she was told in November, she must seek reimbursement from the collection agency, not the city.

By then, she had reached her limit.

In an email to the Problem Solver, Love said she had almost abandoned hope of receiving her $868.50.

"I think it is sad that the city of Chicago EMS billing department is so messed up," she wrote. "I wonder how many taxpayer dollars are being wasted on an administrative team that can't seem to send out timely ambulance bills or successfully resolve self-inflicted wounds?"

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