AUGUSTA — MaineGeneral Medical Center apologized Friday to about 9,700 patients who received letters from a collection agency before they had even gotten statements from the hospital on their balances – all of which were $25 or less.

“A technical error occurred leading to a file transfer of bills of $25 and less going to The Thomas Agency,” MaineGeneral spokeswoman Joy McKenna said in an email Thursday. “The bills are for services provided at MaineGeneral within the past year.”

Patients who owe $25 or less received letters from The Thomas Agency, a debt collector with offices in Portland and Brewer, in the past week.

The letters, dated July 31, say that the bills can be paid by credit card or by mail to a Portland post office box, and include a notice that unless The Thomas Agency is notified within 30 days, it will assume the debt is valid.

On Friday, MaineGeneral Health Chief Financial Officer Terry Brann issued an apology on behalf of the health care system.

“We have isolated the cause for the error and are implementing corrections to ensure this does not happen again in the future,” he said in an email. “Patients’ credit ratings are not impacted by this occurrence. We apologize for the confusion caused by these letters.”

Will Lund, superintendent of the Maine Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, said that while his office has not received consumer complaints about the recent letters, “Most medical providers try to make sure a bill gets to a patient before it gets to a debt collection agency.”

He also noted that medical bills are payable when services are provided, as most health care facilities indicate in their offices. He also said he did not anticipate that information about the debts would be forwarded immediately to credit reporting companies. Lund attributed that to three factors in what he termed “the nature of medical debt.”

“There’s the uncertainty caused by the insurance process,” he said. “Hospitals are notorious about having old addresses on file; collectors are much better about finding where we are now. Many of us are responsible for bills that aren’t even our own. Parents generally agree to pay the bills of minors. If the parents are divorced or separated, the bills could come as a surprise to one parent or the other.”

MaineGeneral Medical Center operates under MaineGeneral Health, which recently ended its last fiscal year in the red.

To help shore up the system’s finances, administrators eliminated about $5.4 million in recurring expenses for supplies, contracts and other costs. And for the last two pay periods of the fiscal year in June, they cut the earned time off that employees see on their paychecks.

People with concerns about receiving a collection letter can call the numbers on the letter – 772-4659 or (800) 639-2408 – which go to The Thomas Agency, or they can call MaineGeneral’s customer support at 872-4680 or toll-free at (877) 255-4680.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams