Chump Change

The Spike loves a superhero. In this case, that would be Roy Solaski, 72 years old and disabled but still fighting the good fight for truth, justice and the American way.

Solaski is waging war against a collection agency (a true American villain) in federal court (totally the American way).

And all over 2 cents.

Now, normally by this time The Spike would be banging its pointy little head against something hard wondering why Solaski didn't just pay the 2 cents. But The Spike is convinced it's Solaski who has the better point (so to speak).

Here's the scoop, according to Solaski and the federal court complaint:

More than a year ago, in November 2001, Solaski went to see Dr. David Johnson, an eye specialist who runs McCormick Eye Center in Scottsdale, having been told by someone else that there was something wrong in the corner of his eye and he needed a specialist.

Johnson and his sanctimonious billing clerk are the real bad guys in this arguably comic tale, Solaski believes. (The Spike is sure Solaski will soon find a way to engage them directly. For now, it's just the collection agency that's been hauled into federal court.)

Johnson didn't find anything of immediate concern and told Solaski to come back in six months. The bill for services went to Medicare, which apparently paid almost all of it.

Solaski went to Belize. A widower (his wife had died of cancer just a few months before) and photography buff, Solaski took a photographic excursion to shoot pictures of wildlife in the jungles on the border between Mexico and Belize.

When he returned to Arizona, there was a bill from Dr. Johnson's office. It seems Solaski still owed the eye clinic $2.39 for services rendered -- and, the clinic insisted, a $4 late fee.

Solaski retired as the director of human resources for one of the largest companies in America and thus is absolutely the wrong guy to be having this fight with. (He asked The Spike to refrain from naming the company since it has nothing to do with this little dustup). Solaski knows his way around a billing office about as well as butterflies know their way around the treetops of Belize.

So he called the office and got, you guessed it, a really unpleasant woman who proceeded to lecture him on his two-dollar delinquency and how costly it was for offices like hers to have to send repeated bills to scofflaws like him. Moreover, she insisted he had signed paperwork explicitly agreeing to pay a $4 late fee every month his bill was in arrears.

"I had absolutely no recall of signing it," says Solaski, who allowed that he may have simply forgotten that part, what with his wife's recent death and all.

So Solaski, despite the billing woman's abominable customer relations, asked her to send him a copy of the agreement he'd signed and he'd be happy to pay the late fee.

Meanwhile, he wrote a check for $2.37 -- 2 cents short -- and dropped it in the mail. "Here's where I made my mistake," he says -- misreading the bill (okay, so he did go to an eye doctor).

Eventually, the letter arrived from Dr. Johnson's office. The attached agreement to pay a late fee was unsigned. The blank signature space was highlighted with yellow.

Solaski never heard from the clinic again. He figured the check he sent had taken care of it.


Six months later, he got a phone call, this time from the National Credit Investigation Bureau. Turns out those $4 late fees had added up to $28. McCormick/Dr. Johnson had turned him over to a collection agency.

This (understandably) really riled Solaski. Most people would have written off the 2 cents (or, let's face it, even $2.39).

And it didn't stop there. The collection agency added its own fee -- 30 percent (which often could be a whopping amount but in this case was about $8). By now, Solaski's 2 cent underage had grown to $36.50 -- plus interest of 7 cents.


Solaski hired an attorney, Michael Shaw of Tempe, whose law practice often goes after heavy-handed collection agencies. The federal court complaint, filed just last month, alleges the National Credit Investigation Bureau violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act by adding on its own fee. And that 7 cents in interest? Another federal no-no, apparently.

So right about here The Spike is compelled to ask: People, is all this really worth it? Two cents? Four bucks? Seven cents? A federal lawsuit? And all those attorneys' fees?

Melvin Young of the collection agency has no answer. Or at least he says he won't comment while the lawsuit is pending.

The billing supervisor at McCormick Eye Center won't talk either. Same reason. And Dr. Johnson himself did not return a call to The Spike, who left him a very detailed voice-mail message seeking comment for the story.

Solaski, however, is outspoken about the atrocity of it all. He is absolutely certain the principle of this particular matter vastly outweighs any financial pain he may suffer.

"Yeah, it's going to cost me money, but, darn it, it's worth it," he says. "Somebody has to stop these people."

Solaski notes that he did try to pay the money he legitimately owed for services, the leftover that apparently Medicare or his secondary insurance didn't cover. And he says he would have paid the late fee if he'd owed it and if the McCormick billing clerk hadn't lied to him about the agreement. "That was when I decided I had to confront them," he says.

"I'm not trying to sound noble here," Solaski continues. The clinic's action "is so irrational. It's a stubborn pursuit of nothing. And then all this sneakiness bothered me."

The Spike couldn't agree more. The collection agency gambit is decidedly over the line, in The Spike's book, of what's fair in social relations such as these. And never telling Solaski the $4 was multiplying? Very bad form, Dr. Johnson.

"I jealously guard my reputation," adds Solaski, who has been appointed by various mayors and governors to serve on various commissions. "I am squeaky clean. And here these people are threatening me."

Oh, and that little eye problem? Solaski has decided to seek another medical opinion.

"I don't trust his medical skills."

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