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Bill for lab test: $35. Late fee? More than $1,000

Unnecessary lab testsKaiser Health News recently dedicated its podcast “An Arm and a Leg” to the story of a woman who visited a fertility clinic for a few tests and later faced threats of more than $1,000 in late fees on her payments.

“Miriam,” as she is identified in the story, had insurance. She thought her plan covered the costs of laboratory tests the doctors ordered.

Sometime after the tests, Miriam received a hot pink envelope in the mail with a bill for $35. She acknowledges that she ignored the bill because she thought the cost was covered. Big mistake. Turns out she did owe the $35 as a copay because the lab was outside her insurance company’s network. What’s more, the lab was owned by private-equity firms that are aggressive about collecting what they’re owed.

More pink envelopes followed before the lab turned Miriam’s account over to its collections agency. Miriam then received a notice that if she didn’t pay right away, she would owe about $1,300 in late fees.

What?

In the end, she settled with the collections agency for $217.

But she wondered whether it was even legal.

Kaiser reporters found that it might depend on where you live. In fact, reporters concluded that surprise medical bills and high late fees are all too common.

While some states have laws to protect consumers from surprise billing, in many places people are on the hook to pay such charges. Congress has been looking at federal protections with bipartisan support, and the legislation has finally shown signs of progress.

As for a late fee of more than a thousand dollars, KHN identified experts who explain how to fight back. With enough time, you could get the other side to accept a fair offer, but it takes more work than anyone should have to do.

Have you ever received an over-the-top late fee for a surprise medical bill? Share your story.