Quite an operation Local hospitals charge greatly varying amounts for the same procedures, federal records reveal Key question: Why the disparity in charges? (copy)

Bills for medical services baffle many consumers. File/AP

Have you ever complained about a medical bill, successfully?

Certainly, many of us have had reasons to complain. Charges for health-care services are rarely disclosed up front, even when requested, and confusing bills can show up months or even years later, often with costs that seem unreasonable.

We would not accept a similar situation with any other service I can think of. Imagine taking your car for a repair, being unable to get an estimate of the cost, and then receiving multiple bills months later — a bill for showing up at the repair shop, and others for the mechanic, the diagnostic machine, parts, and so on.

I've written in the past that legitimate complaints can be highly effective when dealing with credit card charges, problems with air travel and other billing disputes. Medical expenses are a special case, because the networks of providers and insurers are powerful, and the system can be baffling, which makes it harder to determine if you've been wronged.

But, with some determination and a polite refusal to be intimidated, appropriate challenges can be successful.

Let me tell you about the bill I disputed in April.

My teenage son got a flu shot, in 2016, at one of the doc-in-a-box places in suburban Charleston. Last month, a bill shows up from a third-party billing company, listing five different charges — from a visit a year-and-a-half earlier — and saying I owed them about $75.

It took several phone calls and an email to my insurance carrier, but the billing company ended up telling me that they had taken over billing for that medical business, the records were a mess, and I didn't actually owe them anything.

Said another way: They sent me a bill for money I did not owe.

Medical bills are so confusing that I might have just paid this one had it not seemed so unusual. Typically, there's not even a co-pay for a flu shot for insured patients. The bill was for a service date long ago, and the charges seemed unusual.

My bill wasn't large, but others have faced substantial, unreasonable medical bills and come out successful.

This month, the news and opinion website Vox published the story of a woman who "received a $5,751 emergency room bill for a visit where she received an ice pack and a bandage — but wasn’t actually treated" and another woman who took her 4-year-old to an E.R. for a cut on her forehead and was billed $969, although the only service performed was the taking of her daughter's temperature.

According to that story, a hospital canceled the first woman's bill, which she had contested, and refunded her co-payment, while the story was being reported. The woman who took her daughter to the E.R. had her $300 "facility charge" from the hospital reversed, after she complained. 

In 2013 my colleague Lauren Sausser wrote about the bill for $3,801.30 that a woman received from the Medical University of South Carolina, for an electronic copy of her father's medical file. Not only did the woman end up not paying, but the story prompted a change in South Carolina law to keep such charges for medical records from being repeated.

There's no guarantee that complaining about an outrageous or errant bill will result in a satisfactory conclusion. It takes persistence and, sometimes, some public attention to the situation. But, knowing that some bills are incorrect, and others may be reversed if questions are raised, is enough reason to give medical bills careful scrutiny. 

Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552. Follow him on Twitter @DSladeNews.