Mistakes Somewhere

Posted by Ron Decker on 06/25/2018

Years ago, one of my friend’s wife managed their checkbook, always going through it at the end of the month and attempting to making sense of the money. Sometimes, it turned out there was more income than sense when she sat down at the desk in the laundry room and sharpened her pencil. She would often be confronted with whether she dutifully penciled in the amount and check number after handing the paper to the cashier in the checkout line, or tallied the amounts mailed away to the utility providers, the details. It’s always tempting not to keep track of these expenses because it’s a bit tedious. But a lot of money is spent over a thirty-day period and if you don’t have a talent for compulsive self-supervision you can be encumbered by the frightening fact that some of the money gets stalled out in some netherworld, can’t be unaccounted for—that, indeed, she failed to manage the details.

And then more disconcerting after a quick review of the bank statement, my friend would begin to think that some of the fruits of his labor— late nights and the kind of omnipresent stress that makes hair go gray—can’t be explained by a given purchase or expenditure, there was something “off.”  He wanted to know, at least, where the money went; it helped make sense of all the long hours and sacrifices. Part of the joy of work is earning the money and then assigning lumps of it to the manifold expenses inherent to life. You have to buy stuff and you have to remember what. But if you don’t maintain some kind of organization, when it’s time to balance the thing it can appear as if, somehow, the cash has been misplaced.

One day, after not understanding why things were “off” for one too many times, my friend went into the laundry room to look over the checkbook. Turning to the ledger he kept encountering “MSW,” an enigmatic acronym, written frequently.  He had no idea of its meaning so he called his wife who told him, with a shrug, it meant, simply, “Mistake Somewhere.” Even the fact that she’d divided “somewhere” into two words pointed at a kind of bad mix-up, but the tokenism, MSW, it must be admitted, was a neat way for a sensibility to reckon with what it couldn’t explain. The term didn’t exactly clarify any specific aberration or oversight but it at least gave a name to a rogue sum. So for a long time the term had falsely steadied the accounts, that is, until my friend looked for clarification.

People lose track of expenses, what’s owned, what’s due—it’s natural. But it’s important to rectify the lopsidedness before it starts showing with more permanence and frequency, as it had in my friend’s finances. If you’re an upper-middleclass woman tending to the family account at the end of the month in your laundry room there’s a certain freedom and margin-of-error not afforded a large business. Whether from inattention or ongoing clerical or accounting glitches if there’s a pattern of fault lots of money could be needlessly at risk, as shown by Edward Elmhurst’s[i] grueling ninety-two million dollar “accounting error.”

So, Mistakes Somewhere— today, third party payors are using disparate code classifications to communicate their rationale for payment reductions and denials.  If the back office staff shrugs it off, significant sums of money could be at stake.  Details matter, keep track, ask questions… At the beginning when the error doesn’t feel so pressing and you want to get home for the night there is an immediate and attractive convenience to accepting your version of MSW. But don’t do it, don’t do it— address the problem so it doesn’t become a distended unmanageable thing and you could have to admit a peccadillo to your partner, board or the public.

No one wants that.

[1] Hospital accounting error adds up to $92 million

By Kristen Schorsch

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