The ER Overcharged Me, So I Gave Them A Taste Of Their Own Medicine

"I refuse to waste any more of my time working with corporations to fix their mistakes — or at least, I won’t be doing it for free," the author writes.
Courtesy of Joe Garber

I’m through with the days when a giant company can make a mistake, and then I have to call their corporate support center and wait on hold for hours or escalate the call through countless customer service representatives who argue with me and say there’s nothing that can be done over and over again. I refuse to waste any more of my time working with corporations to fix their mistakes ― or at least, I won’t be doing it for free.

From now on, I’m charging them for these hours, and I’m not cheap. My new rate for waiting on hold or talking to customer service representatives who don’t have the power to help me is $200 an hour. I ask that all corporations keep this in mind and make the “customer service call-line” process go as quickly as possible, for their own sakes, because, you know, there are “processing fees,” “service fees,” “convenience fees” and taxes that I’ll be adding to the total.

“My new rate for waiting on hold or talking to customer service representatives who don’t have the power to help me is $200 an hour.”

I live in America, so I know the routine of calling a customer service line. I know how the representatives like to say “unfortunately” because this little word takes the blame away from the company they represent. “Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do” takes all responsibility for the problem out of the hands of the corporation and puts it into the hands of someone higher, a place of divination, into the realm of fortune. And what’s a little corporation supposed to do about that? How can a corporation be expected to change your fortune? So, unfortunately, it is not within your “fortune” that these charges be taken off your bill. Fate has decided it.

I went to the ER at a very large hospital chain in Los Angeles back in February 2019 for a thing that turned out to be fine. I spent four hours there waiting for doctors to spend five minutes with me before they could tell me it wasn’t anything to worry about, but that’s not even the point I’m trying to make. I didn’t know how much the ER visit was going to cost me, but I’ve heard horror stories, so I thought I would ask before they did any tests or scans.

I asked the doctors and nurses what any of the procedures they want to do cost, and for some reason, they had no clue. So they bring in a financial counselor, and she wheels in her laptop, and I ask her how much the tests they want to do are going to cost me.

We go back and forth a bit because she has no idea how much they charge for anything they do. I wonder how that’s possible ― that information must be available somewhere ― but she can barely give me a ballpark estimate of what these tests and scans cost.

Finally, after a lot of confusing conversation and her just wanting to read me the details of my insurance plan over and over again, she tells me the whole visit will only cost me about $250, and I ask her $250? And she says yes, the whole visit will only cost around $250, and I ask her to make sure that no matter what tests or scans they do, I’ll only be charged $250? She says yes, and I make sure once more. This repetition is important because I wanted to be extra clear that I wouldn’t be paying more than $250 for this ER visit. My boyfriend, Erik, was in the room and he heard the same thing.

Surprise, surprise: Four months go by (not sure why it takes so long) and I get two bills totaling over $1,000. This upsets me. This is not what I was told my ER visit would cost.

I guess I don’t believe in fate because I call the insurance customer support line knowing they would tell me it was not within my fortune to take these charges off, but there’s no doubt in my mind that I was told the entire ER visit was only going to cost me $250. I’m on hold for a while, and then I talk to the first lady, and she tries that old trick and says unfortunately there’s nothing they can do and those charges are legitimate.

I tell her what the financial counselor in the ER told me. She apologizes for the misinformation and says there’s nothing they can do and apologizes for my bad fortune. I ask to talk to her supervisor and after a heavy amount of resistance and a 10-minute hold, I’m connected to her supervisor.

Usually, being put on hold for 10 minutes to correct an error that they made by telling me the wrong price would upset me, but with my new corporate phone call hourly rate, I realize I just made $33.33.

Courtesy of Joe Garber

I make sure to get the supervisor’s name ― it’s Lance ― and his ID number. Lance runs through the same thing with me. They just keep trying to dazzle me with the details of my coverage ― “your deductible is this,” “your co-pay is that.” I don’t understand a word I’m hearing and don’t need to because I already spoke with a financial counselor when I was at the ER four months ago, and she assured me I wouldn’t be charged more than about $250, which is what I keep telling Lance.

Lance says she wasn’t authorized to estimate the price and that the financial counselor in the ER should not have done that. When I tell him that she did estimate the price, he says that I should have called member services to talk to a financial counselor instead of talking to the financial counselor in the ER because she was on the “clinical” side and I needed to talk to someone on the “financial” side. He said that she should have told me this. She didn’t. Lance tells me that unfortunately these charges are legitimate and my insurance company won’t be waiving them for me.

This is not unfortunate, this is irritating. I ask Lance what different information they would have had if I had called in. He tells me he doesn’t know what system she was looking at and that a member services person could have told me about my insurance plan. I tell Lance that the financial counselor kept telling me about my insurance plan over and over again. In fact, I thought for a bit that her job was to wheel around her laptop and read the very publicly accessible information about what my deductible and copays were. Surely the hospital wouldn’t hire a person whose sole purpose was to list public information at me. So, again, I ask Lance what information a member services person would have that she did not? He said, “It’s a different system.”

I was onto him, but I let it go because it’s a digression and I just needed these charges taken off my account. And I knew that I was charging $200 an hour for this call and didn’t want to waste his time, either. So I asked Lance why the financial counselor lied to me, and he was unwilling to admit that she lied but then apologized, telling me it’s unfortunate that I received “misinformation.”

So to all the people I’ve lied to in my life: I take back any apology I gave you and instead am sorry that it was your fortune to receive misinformation.

Lance can’t do anything about the charges so I ask to talk to someone who can. This is when his tone changes a little bit from Professional Guy Who Unfortunately Can’t Help Me to Weirdly Kind Of Sad Guy Who Is Irritated With Me. He says Jazelle can authorize to take off the fees but she’s on vacation, so she needs to call me back on Monday at the earliest. I ask for any of Jazelle’s information so that I can contact her to make sure this happens, and Lance says he’s not authorized to give me any of that info — which is great because I love leaving things like this up to corporations. Usually, they’ll always follow through and it won’t be up to me to spend hours on customer service holds trying to reconnect with some other random person who has no idea what I’ve already talked about.

“This run-around I was on, being charged an astronomical amount, being lied to, holding on corporate support lines, being told there’s nothing that can be done, withholding the contact information of someone that can actually help me ― it’s all part of corporations actively trying to make the process so exhausting that I just give up.”

And, very surprisingly, it was not within my fortune for Jazelle to call me that Monday! And I, unfortunately, didn’t have any way of contacting her other than calling 1-800-the name-of-the-hospital and spending hours on hold or arguing with customer service representatives to let me talk to Jazelle. I didn’t want them to be charged my admittedly high hourly rate for this time, so instead, I just charged a small “convenience fee” of $400 for the missed appointment. Because unfortunately I need at least 24 hours notice for changes to appointments ― it’s my newest policy, and I’m pretty excited about it.

They didn’t leave me hanging for too long though, fortunately. The next day I woke up to my phone ringing with this hospital’s name. Finally, my new colleague Jazelle was calling to tell me about what fortune a higher power had divined for me. I was excited to see how much time we’d spend going back and forth and how many hours we’d add to my invoice. Thoughts of statements like “How was your vacation, Jazelle?” and “Why didn’t you call me when they said you would?” and “Why don’t you just apply my premium payment of $350 a month to these fees, where’s that money going anyway if not to support my health care?” danced through my brain like sugar plums.

To my shock, it wasn’t Jazelle on the other end of the line. It was another customer service representative named Ted, and he tells me it is within my fortune to waive the fees for my visit! And in the future, I should call them to get a more accurate estimate of the costs of hospital visits, even though they would have been closed at midnight when I went to the ER. I’m left wondering what the purpose of the financial counselor who works in the ER is, but I don’t ask Ted because I won ― they waived the fees and I saved myself over a thousand dollars and after all, I am still charging this company a heavy fee for this call.

I wasn’t done with Ted though ― I had one more question, the sweetest plum of all: I got to ask Ted where I could send my invoice. At first, he was confused and he thought I meant invoices for the charges they tried to give me. I was sort of expecting this to be Ted’s reaction and so I tell him no, I’m talking about my invoice for time spent on the phone trying to fix this error. His tone changed ever so slightly as he realized what I was talking about, and I think Ted might be a good guy because I swear what I heard on his voice was amusement. He gave me an address for the hospital’s legal department, and although this sounds like the wrong place to send an invoice to me, I let Ted off the line, add the 20 minutes we spent on the phone to my invoice, along with a small processing fee, a small convenience fee and, of course, tax for all of the items. I then wrap it all up in an envelope marked “ATTN: Accounts Receivable,” top it with a stamp that says “Love” and put it in the mail.

And now I delightedly await their next move. Whether they blindly process my over $700 invoice or call me and have me go line by line through the invoice with them, thusly wracking up more corporate phone time solving this issue and causing me to process yet another invoice, I’ll be happy either way.

Because this issue I’m having, for me personally, taps into what sometimes makes America a disgusting place to live. This run-around I was on, being charged an astronomical amount, being lied to, holding on corporate support lines, being told there’s nothing that can be done, withholding the contact information of someone that can actually help me ― it’s all part of corporations actively trying to make the process so exhausting that I just give up. This merry-go-round of confusion makes me feel so incredibly helpless, just like it was designed to do.

Courtesy of Joe Barber

But I’ll try to fight it in my “Let Me Talk to the Manager” kind of way, by striking back at the only thing they care about and invoicing them for all my time. It has worked in the past: for example, when my phone service provider forgot to take an international plan off of my account for months after I told them to and I spent hours fixing this mistake for them. They ended up applying the cost for time spent on the phone to my future bills. One trick I recommend is to Google the highest-level executive for the corporation that’s grieving you and email them directly. These people usually don’t care to dive into a dispute with a customer and will just fix the issue immediately.

Maybe one day I’ll get the divine pleasure of sending a corporation’s debt for my invoice to collections the way they love to do to us. And then, when they call me, begging to have the charges taken off, I’ll spit right into the phone the way they’ve done to me a thousand times before: “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do, these charges are legitimate, unfortunately.”

Joe Garber is an illustrator and animation director. You can find his work at

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