AUGUSTA — When Christine Wilson received a notice from a collection agency saying she owed $15.21 for services at MaineGeneral Medical Center, she sent a check immediately.

“I was going to write ‘Really?’ on it, but I thought, it’s $15.21,” she said. “I thought it had been paid, but I didn’t research it. I made the check out to MaineGeneral.”

A couple of days later, the 66-year-old Bowdoinham woman received a second letter from The Thomas Agency, this time saying she owed the hospital $99.89.

She knew she didn’t because she had a canceled check showing she paid that hospital bill on May 19.

Now she’s questioning whether she really owed the $15.21 and has called the hospital to find out.

She is one of a slew of people who responded to a story last week about a billing error by MaineGeneral Medical Center in which 9,700 people received letters from the collection agency saying they owed money to the Augusta-based hospital for services received in the past year.

“At this point, we are handling each person’s billing questions individually,” MaineGeneral Medical Center spokeswoman Joy McKenna said in an emailed response to questions, declining to provide additional details about what the hospital would only describe as a “technical” error. “There is nothing more for us to add at this time.”

She directed anyone with questions to call the hospital billing department or The Thomas Agency.

A week ago, 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.”

Steve Butterfield, policy director for Augusta-based Consumers for Affordable Healthcare, had not heard of a similar billing mistake elsewhere among Maine health care providers.

“It’s not at all uncommon for bills to go to collection, but typically hospitals go through their own collection process before they forward anything to a collections agency,” Butterfield said. “They give you a chance to pay your bill.”

Butterfield said Consumers for Affordable Healthcare operates a consumer assistance helpline and he is concerned that the number does not appear on anything sent to a consumer from a collection agency related to a health bill.

“I hope MaineGeneral has plans under way that anybody who is affected by this is being reached out to is being told that this is a mistake,” Butterfield said. “It should not be up to 9,700 people to fix MaineGeneral’s mistakes.”

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.

Most of the recipients of letters from The Thomas Agency apparently had not been billed first by the hospital.

Charles Atwood of Skowhegan is one of those. He received two bills from the collection agency, one for $20 and one for $25.

“Twenty bucks don’t seem like much, but when you’re retired, it’s everything, and when added to all the other things, it’s quite a lot,” said Atwood, 83.

He called The Thomas Agency and was told it was for co-pays. He said he had not received a bill prior to the collection agency notices. Atwood says he pays his bills right after the first of every month.

Other collections notices were for particularly small amounts.

“I got caught up in that for $2 I didn’t know I owed,” Nancy McKenney of Readfield said via email. “I was speechless when I opened the letter, then laughed at how ridiculous it was.”

Jeannette Stackpole, 51, of Farmingdale, said that her first inkling she owed a balance at MaineGeneral came in a series of phone calls within the past month from a collection agency – she was unsure which one.

“No letters, no phone calls from the hospital,” she said. Her son, Kenny Stackpole Jr., 29, a petty officer in the U.S. Navy stationed in Saudi Arabia, also got calls from a collection agency saying he owed the hospital money.

Jeannette Stackpole called the hospital’s billing department immediately.

“I talked to billing, and they said, ‘You have a balance.’ I asked, ‘How come no one sent me a statement or a letter or a phone call?'”

“I’m an honest person,” she said, “If I had gotten a bill I would have paid it.”

Stackpole requested a letter to verify the dates of service, telling them, “I can’t pay you guys if I don’t have anything to go by.”

Stackpole said she suspected it was from a procedure she had in August 2016. Two weeks later, she received the letter and the next day paid $740.

“I wasn’t happy with the protocol,” she said.

Her son also called the hospital billing department and was told they had sent him a letter about the bill. He had not received it.

Jeannette Stackpole said her son’s bill should have been picked up by TRICARE, a health care program for uniformed service members and retirees and families. Once it was researched and billing codes changed, it was indeed picked up.

Stackpole said she remains concerned about how this incident will affect her credit rating, and plans to contact the hospital to see what it plans to do about it.

Stackpole, who moves between Farmingdale and Florida, has her mail forwarded, but did not get any bills.

Will Lund, superintendent of the Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, said that new rules require that once any new medical debt is paid, it disappears from credit reports.

He said medical bills are “unanticipated debt,” unlike debt that can arise from other purchases.

“It’s a good change,” Lund said.

He also noted that medical bills are payable when the service is provided, as most health care facilities indicate with placards on site.

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.

For help from Consumers for Affordable Healthcare, call (800) 965-7476.

Betty Adams can be contacted at 621-5631 or at:

[email protected]

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