Winning an epic battle with French lab billing

A great pastime, particularly among foreigners in France, is complaining about the bizarre inefficiency of the French system and all the frustrations that come with it. I’ve ranted about French bureaucracy a considerable amount, but all of these experiences that make you want to clunk heads together are the rule, not the exception. Everyone has lived them, even French people.

So I’m happy to present to you a France success story! I like to tell it because I get to rant for most of the story (ranting is only fun after it’s all over) and it still has a happy ending. Are you ready?

In January, I went to the doctor. She said she was going to do a test that would cost 7 euros once it was reimbursed in part by social security. Fine, I said. In France, the doctor actually gives you your lab sample packaged in an envelope and you have to take it to the post office to mail it to the lab yourself. Weird, but okay.

A few weeks later, I got a bill for 23.10€. I sent a check, because that was the only way to pay. And that was that.

Except that a couple months later, a scary collection agency note showed up at my door, threatening to fine me over 100 euros for not paying the bill, which I had paid. So I called them up.

“Um, actually I did pay this bill a few months ago,” I explained.

They insisted that there was no record of my payment.

“Fine, then I would like to pay it now. Can I use an American credit card? I’m having some problems with my French bank.”

“Yes, clearly you are,” the woman smirked condescendingly.

(My French bank problems are an entirely different saga, and do not involve a lack of funds to pay a 23 euro bill.)

I argued with her until she conceded to let me pay the original amount owed, minus additional charges.

And that was that.

Except that it wasn’t, because in May (remember, this all started in January) the laboratory cashed my check. They cashed the check that they had said they had never received, after sending a collection agency after me, months after I had paid the collection agency!

I only had the number for the collection agency, and naturally, this debacle was not their problem.

“You’ll have to take this up with the lab because they are the ones who cashed your check.”

“Okay, could you please give me their phone number?”

“I can’t share that information with you, but here is there address. You can write them a letter.”

I can write them a letter?! (Side note: Sometimes, in France, you will be told that the only way to accomplish something is to write a letter. It sounds like a joke, but it isn’t.)

Thankfully, Google seemed to think it was okay to give me the lab’s phone number. You’re the best, Google.

So, in my best polite French, I explained that there seemed to have been an error.

“You’ll have to take that up with the collection agency, that’s not my problem,” the receptionist brushed me off.

“Oh no no no no nononononono.” My polite French got less polite. “I have paid almost fifty euros for something that was supposed to cost seven. Do you find that normal and correct? I did send the payment on time, and when I was told you had lost the check, I paid immediately a second time to resolve the issue.”

“We didn’t lose your check!” She was indignant.

I was confused. “Then… why… but… the collection agency?”

“I don’t know what my colleague did, but we didn’t lose your check. We sent you the reimbursement form, didn’t you get it?”

“Madame, the issue is not the assurance maladie reimbursement. The issue is that you have charged me twice and you need to reimburse me.”

Here, there was some hemming and hawing, and she put me on hold. Apparently, she didn’t share my view that reimbursement was obligatory in this scenario.

Finally: “My supervisor says we can send you a check.”

“Wonderful! When might I expect to receive it?”

“Bah, je sais pas madame! We have other clients, not just you. It won’t be tomorrow.”

“I understand, but could you give me an idea? A week? Two? I’ll be moving in a month.”

“You had better give me your new address. Ca ne va pas être demain!” she repeated.

“I don’t have it yet, and I really think that three weeks is sufficient time to send a check.”

“You’re moving in a month and you don’t have a new address? You’re really pushing it, madame.”

It sounds polite because we were calling each other madame, but the whole thing had turned into quite a spat.

“Look,” I said. “I am sure that you will be able to successfully mail this check in two weeks. In the event that I don’t have it before I move, I will contact you again. Will that work for you?”

“Yes. Au revoir.”

“Thanks so much for all your help and bonne journée!” I spit out sarcastically, sure that I was going to have to call and harrass her for the money in a few weeks.

But. BUT! Here’s the happy ending. Are you ready?

The check came in a few weeks time, and I cashed it. HOORAY!

The end.

Have you ever battled the French system? Tell me your story, or leave a link to your own rantings!

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