I CONFESS I filed this column several weeks late in large part because I had hoped first to figure out a medical bill whose serial iterations have been arriving monthly like clockwork for half a year.
As medical bills go, it's not very big: $225, from a laboratory. But I don't really want to pay it until I understand what it's for. It's not that the bill contains no information — there is lots of it. Test codes: 105, 127, 164, to name a few. CPT codes: 87481, 87491, 87798 and others. It tells me I'm being billed $29.90 for each of nine things, but there is an "adjustment" to one of $14.20.
At first, I left messages on the lab's billing office voice mail asking for an explanation. A few months ago, when someone finally called back, she said she could not tell me what the codes were for because that would violate patient privacy. After I pointed out that I was the patient in question, she said, politely: "I'm sorry, this is what I'm told, and I don't want to lose my job."
I have spent the last two and a half years reporting and writing about medical costs, and during that time I have pored over hundreds of patients' bills. And while I've become pretty adept at medical bill exegesis, I continue to be baffled by how we've come to tolerate the Kafkaesque stream of nonexplanations that follow health encounters.