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Will Medicare Changes Result in Better Quality?

September 3, 2012 in health care costs, Health Insurance, Hospital Bills, Insurance Bills, Medical Care, Medical Debt, Medicare

As the price of health care in America keeps rising, you may be among those that are frustrated by the kind of generic approach taken by  health insurance companies and government entitlement programs. The traditional fee-for-service format of health care reimbursement means that the best hospitals and doctor’s offices don’t get rewarded and the lower performing offices don’t have consequences. But, this is all likely to change with new Medicare rules that are slated to pursue more of a ‘meritocracy’ in the way that health care dollars get paid out.

New Medicare Rules

Reports from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services show that Medicare is going to begin making some changes in the way that it reimburses health care providers starting late this year. In what Medicare officials call a ‘value-based purchasing’ program, Medicare will consider various aspects of a provider’s operations in setting the reimbursement rates for that particular office. Key factors will include observation of outcomes, or in other words, whether the procedures and services performed at an office actually help patients to recover from illnesses and improve quality of life.

Responses to the Changes

For you, this represents a major change and a big potential edge in making sure you get what you deserve for the money, especially when you have out of pocket expenses. On the downside, though, some providers are arguing that hospitals and offices in rural areas, or those with other significant disadvantages, may be punished unfairly. Read the rest of this entry →

How Much is Health Insurance Coverage Really Costing You?

August 30, 2012 in health care costs, Health Insurance, Hospital Bills, Insurance Bills, Medical Care, Medical Debt, Medicare

Just when you think you have the health care business figured out, new reports come out showing even more dark details about how American patients are simply charged massive amounts of money for health care services on a pretty arbitrary basis.

The newest wrinkle in this story actually turns the conventional wisdom about payment for health care on its ear: where many assume that most uninsured patients get the highest bills, new reports are showing that, in many cases, the “cash-up-front” deals given to cash-paying patients may be as little as less than half of a contractually agreed price that the hospital would bill the insurance company. Why is this a problem? Because it means that many of those who pay high deductibles, premiums and coinsurance on a health plan may still be paying more for each service, visit or procedure than someone who doesn’t have any insurance at all. It also injects a huge monkey wrench into the now established idea that everyone needs health insurance to make health care affordable. On the flip side, if you have a high deductible but choose to self-pay a medical bill, how will you ever meet your deductible? This is particularly troublesome should you have a catastrophic event. Read the rest of this entry →

Figuring Out Your Medical Coding – What Doctors Are Hiding From You

August 30, 2012 in Hospital Bills, Insurance Bills

The curiosity bug bites us all from now and then, but especially so when something has to do with our own health. Imagine the frustration of having a piece of paper in front of you that tells you everything that’s wrong with you, what the doctors plan to do about it, and how much it’s going to cost you. Well, with medical coding, this frustration becomes a reality. Right there on your bill or summary or any other document given to you by your health care provider is the medical codes that hold the answers to all of the questions you have.

But medical coding is a locked answer booklet, oftentimes only decipherable by health care professionals and those within the medical coding profession. That’s because the American Medical Association (AMA) keeps a tight lid on what these codes mean, mostly so that they can keep their billing practices under wraps, but also to make money. But what can you do about this as a patient? Well, as it turns out, quite a bit. Let’s find out how you can figure out what your medical coding means.

What Is The Most Common Medical Coding?

Chances are the medical coding you’re seeing on your documentation is the Current Procedural Terminology, or the CPT for short. These medical coding numbers are assigned to each and every task, service, treatment or health care plan that a doctor provides for their patient (with the exception of those covered by Medicare). This includes:

10 Essential Questions To Ask During Any Hospital Visit

August 24, 2012 in health care costs, Hospital Bills, Medical Care

The hospital can be a scary, intimidating place, especially if you don’t spend a lot of time there. Depending on why you may have ended up in the hospital, there are certain questions you’ll want to ask your doctor and the medical staff. Questions To Ask During a Hospital Visit

  1. Are all the signs normal? You’ll want to know about all your vital statistics. How is your blood pressure, body mass index and breathing?
  2. Details about your problem: Ask the doctor treating you what may be causing the problem that forced you to visit the hospital. Could there be more than one issue affecting your health? Being kept in the dark can help compound your stress and make visiting a hospital even more severe.
  3. Learn more about the tests: Some of the testing done in a hospital can be uncomfortable and invasive. Find out first how accurate the tests are for diagnosing an issue. How safe are the tests you’ll need to undergo and what could some of the side effects be?
  4. Get the facts after diagnosis: If you are diagnosed with a serious condition, find out what the next course of action will be. Ask about the long-term outlook and what treatment options are available.
  5. Ask about each treatment option: Find out what the pros and cons of each treatment option available to you. What are the risks associated with each treatment and how do they weigh against the benefits?
  6. Get the facts about pricing: Read the rest of this entry →

Challenging Rejected Health Insurance Claims

August 5, 2012 in health care costs, Health Insurance, Hospital Bills, Insurance Bills, Medical Debt

According to the AHA (American Hospital Association), 87% of hospitals expect bad medical debt to continue to grow.  And it’s no wonder with situations like a very common one experienced by patients across the nation. You are seen by your healthcare provider for a service or procedure that should be covered under your insurance plan per plan benefits. However, when the Explanation of Benefits is received from the insurance carrier, charges have been denied for coverage. What happened?

Reimbursement is based on a few key areas including plan benefits and coverage period, medical necessity, correct patient information, diagnosis code, and procedure/service code (CPT), etc. An incorrect key stroke can cause your claim to be rejected. Or, an erroneous code can result in zero dollars paid. What can you do?

Begin by appealing the rejection to your doctor and the insurance company. As described above, it may have been a simple clerical error that caused charges to be dismissed. In other situations, you want to confirm that the CPT and diagnosis codes are cross referenced. What may have happened is that the CPT code did not support the diagnosis or the reverse. Codes are chosen based on the physician’s notes, documentation, and national coding guidelines. Sometimes, the CPT code may not be specific enough or it may have incorrectly described the level of care. Most insurance companies have their own unique process and timeline for appeal submissions.

If you’ve exhausted your appeal efforts and your claim remains unpaid, you may want to file a complaint with your state’s health insurance commissioner and or enlist a medical bill advocate to navigate the process for you. Whichever route you choose, be persistent, professional, and follow through.

Managing High Health Care Costs on Your Family’s Budget

July 22, 2012 in health care costs, Health Insurance, Hospital Bills, Insurance Bills, Medical Care, Medical Debt

Recent news on the costs of health care, in the U.S. and around the world, is focusing on what experts call “double digit levels” of annual increases. This is bad news for us, and troubling for the country as a whole. What it translates to is annual increases over 10%, where health care costs could conceivably double in a decade. Since this kind of price spike has been going on for a while already, many American families already consider major medical care to be priced above their ability to afford it.

Who Pays the Bill? 

Part of the particular desperation that has surrounded the American medical industry in the past few years has to do with who usually pays the bill.

In the past, employer group plans provided coverage for the majority of Americans. A few decades ago, this model was built on stable, long-term contracts between workers and companies, where those who stayed loyal to a business could expect to keep a job for life. Also, employers paid a major part of all premium costs.

In the present, however, we’ve felt the rise of health care prices. First, employers started to lower the premium amounts they were willing to pay. As jobs went overseas, employers laid off workers. Then, as the economy grew weaker, more lost jobs. An unemployment rate of over 10% means much more than lost wages: it means that many thousands of American families are suddenly left without coverage.

Meanwhile, the group plans that are left often do not pay the majority of premiums and often include high deductibles, which are also extremely expensive for the average family. In fact, some employers hardly pay anything toward premiums at all, while others provide “mini-medical” plans or other virtually useless coverage, or move full-time positions to part-time and thus avoid offering plans.

What Can You Do? Read the rest of this entry →

Maintain Open Communication with Medical Bill Debt

July 14, 2012 in health care costs, Health Insurance, Hospital Bills, Insurance Bills, Medical Care, Medical Debt

The Affordable Care Act is cracking down on some of the most aggressive ways that hospitals categorized as charitable or nonprofit facilities for tax exemption can seek to shake money out of patients. Reports of the new laws also often offer some of the most common advice to protect you and your family from unfair or excessive medical debt.

Always Talk to Your Providers

One of the biggest pieces of advice is to always ask up front about available charity and financial assistance programs. It’s a great idea to ask about health care costs, and detail payment options, before you sign up for any given course of treatment. But beyond this, dialogue with the provider is also a key to keeping medical bills from showing up on credit reports. It’s true that even with the best back channel dialogue, some hospital administrators will still send bills to collections, but having an open communication with the provider will prevent this in the majority of cases where reasonable financial offices simply ask that patients keep in touch about their debt and pay to the best of their ability.

Make Sure You Are Covered

Essentially, the Affordable Care Act can be seen as a double-edged sword – depending on what side of the table you are on. Read the rest of this entry →

How to handle a bad charge on a medical bill

July 9, 2012 in health care costs, Hospital Bills, Insurance Bills

The Today program at MSNBC recently published a report about errors in medical bills, with the comment that ‘Medical billing is rife with errors …’   The report has many comments from readers, most of whom also reinforce the frustrating state of affairs in  medical billing.

The report includes general suggestions for the patient from HealthCPA, a company that helps manage medical bills and health insurance paperwork..  We probably already know that error prevention is not easy or simple.  Furthermore error prevention may not even be possible for  the sick patient and helpers (if help is being given).  Still further, error prevention may involve unreasonable amounts of time and effort by those who do not have the energy or resources to deal with errors.

How to be Your Own Best Advocate

June 15, 2012 in health care costs, Health Insurance, Hospital Bills, Insurance Bills, Medical Care, Medicare, Member Stories

Being Your Own Advocate

In case you haven’t been paying attention to changes in America’s health care system, there’s a general idea that needs to get out to as many people as possible: the gist of it is that, in most cases, today’s consumer needs to be much more engaged in their care and ready to act as their own advocate in order to get the health care and treatment that they need, no matter what their health is like.

You may have heard something like this already: from all corners of the health related media, patients are hearing that they need to “be their own advocates” and get vigilant about not just what they pay for health care, but what kinds of health care they receive and whether or not it fits their specific needs.

But what does it mean to be your own advocate? Looking beyond the cliché, you can obtain good, concrete ideas of how to go about interacting with a family doctor in ways that will help you get better access to the health care you need.

Patient Engagement: What it Involves

The good news on this front is that you may already do a lot of what you need to do to advocate for yourself in a healthcare environment. Read the rest of this entry →

Are You Being Treated by a Subcontracted Doctor?

May 28, 2012 in health care costs, Health Insurance, Hospital Bills, Insurance Bills, Medical Care, Medicare

A recent story from Dayton, Ohio, caught our attention, where according to news reports, some patients remain responsible for emergency room charges when a hospital happens to ‘subcontract’  doctors who may not accept health insurance at all. This adds another layer to the oftentimes confusing in network vs. out of network debate. In many cases, especially in an emergency situation, patients who visit a local hospital or facility may experience unexpected costs after they are cared for by a doctor who may not be ‘in their network’, even if the facility itself is listed as an in network provider. There’s been a lot of discussion whether this, which may seem deceptive, especially to those without specialized knowledge in the medical billing and health insurance field, is fair. In fact, state officials, like in New York, are  looking to pass legislation which mandates better transparency for out of network charges. Taking the time to understand your health insurance plan and what defines a covered provider or facility can save you hundreds if not thousands of dollars in non-covered charges.

It seems providers tend to respond to these scenarios in two ways: Some indicate they will change their policies to include more transparency while others claim to be bound by federal laws that do not allow them to reveal to patients whether an on-call doctor or a physician on shift will accept their insurance or not.

We find the second argument to be completely unacceptable at face value. In fact, it’s reasonable that consumer advocates would expect state regulators to crack down on these well documented examples of seemingly unfair provisions in delivering medical services. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that a patient facing bankruptcy after a bill like this would have a basis for legal appeal, especially as new legislation is introduced and passed. It’s vitally important that you discuss your options and ask questions before treatment to minimize impact to your financial future. How prepared are you in the event of an emergency room visit?

Beware of Balance Billing in Hospital Bills

May 12, 2012 in health care costs, Health Insurance, Hospital Bills, Insurance Bills

Balance billing occurs when a healthcare provider bills a patient for some or the entire amount that should have been declared an insurance discount (contractual allowance). The fact that Prime Healthcare Services in California recently settled a suit for $1.2 million and discontinued the practice suggests that this is a problem. In fact, several states have statutes that prohibit balance billing.

How do you tell if you’ve been balanced billed? First, you have to determine if your treatment was performed by an in or out-of-network healthcare professional. Then, you have to check your EOB (Explanation of Benefits).

In- Network

Check an erroneous charge simply by seeing if the bill for the service exceeds the amount on the EOB. If it does, let your insurance company know and let them handle it.

Out-of-Network (OON)

There are two scenarios:

  • If you have an OON benefit, the OON deductible and co-insurance will apply first. The insurance company pays the balance above that like always. However, if the provider billed you for more than the deductible and co-insurance you may be the victim of a scam. Check the EOB. Did insurance pay the provider? If so, report it. It’s a scam and it is wrong.
  • If you do not have an OON benefit and accidentally got treated by the provider, tell them you want to be treated like an uninsured patient. A standard discount will be applied.

When in doubt, check with a medical bill advocate.

Past Due Medical Bills: When Do I Have to Pay?

May 5, 2012 in health care costs, Health Insurance, Hospital Bills, Insurance Bills, Medical Debt, Medicare

Have you received a medical or hospital bill with no clear due date? This can be because of how bills are laid out or because of design issues. Typically, a bill or patient statement will show medical debt as 30, 60, or 90 days past due, providing the kind of urgency that can make you drop a check in the mail. Bills may also be labeled “second notice” or “third notice” to show that the biller has already tried to contact you. But, all of that doesn’t always tell you what you need to know: how long you have to pay before the bill goes to collections. There are several reasons you may choose not to pay your medical debt right away including having a lot of bills or long-term debts to juggle. Prioritizing which ones to pay can take precedent to stay afloat. And, some billing statements require real, actionable steps while medical bills seem to be written in some strange, esoteric language.

Medical Debt Collection: Common Practices

Every medical provider has their own system for handling past due bills. Some are quicker than others to send a past due bill to collections. Many have different billing systems that represent debt in different ways. Some may be explicit about a due date, others will not. In some cases, when patients call, the medical office admits that they don’t even know the exact date when a bill will go to collections. That’s what motivates many experienced consumer advocates and others to recommend “playing it safe” and promptly paying all past due medical bills aged longer than 30 days, which is a common grace period for payments.

Some patients, though, will make active attempts to talk to providers. Those who pick up the phone can often get on payment plans that will make due dates and everything else much clearer, while allowing for deferred payment according to the patient’s finances. Some can even qualify for charity. In many cases, it’s this direct communication which can yield benefits for both parties: you know where you stand and your provider receives data on how and when you are likely to pay a particular bill. It’s a win-win, and that’s why when it comes to vague patient statements, the direct approach is often best. How do you promote open communication with your provider on past due medical bills?

Overused and Unnecessary Medical Procedures

April 28, 2012 in health care costs, Health Insurance, Hospital Bills, Insurance Bills, Medical Care, Medical Debt, Medicare, Member Stories

Nine physician specialty societies are each reporting a top five list of commonly used procedures that are often unnecessary. These societies represent 375,000 physicians across the country.

Some of the procedures cited include:

  • Brain scan after fainting (without other relevant symptoms)
  • Antibiotics for sinusitis (while typically resolving itself in two weeks, 80% of patients are prescribed antibiotics. CT scans are also usually unnecessary.)
  • Admission and pre-operative chest X-rays (routine X-rays are not needed.)
  • Colonoscopies (not recommended but once a decade.)
  • Cardiac stress tests (they do not need to be part of a checkup for a healthy adult.)
  • Lower back pain (unless another ailment is suspected, X-rays are not needed in the first six weeks.)

Unwarranted testing can lead to stress, over treatment, higher medical bills, and even unneeded invasive procedures.

In fact, the natural tendency to screen for heart disease prior to having any symptoms, like getting a stress test as a 50th birthday present, hasn’t “panned out,” according to a preventive cardiologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Study members suggested that patients and doctors have to thoroughly discuss any tests/procedures even if they are suggested by patients because they are not always needed.

If you live near Pasadena, CA…

April 21, 2012 in health care costs, Hospital Bills

check out Huntington Hospital’s procedure pricing tool.  This is an astonishing display of price information. It’s astonishing because posting prices for anything is almost unheard of at hospitals in the US.

If you’re uninsured and you need bariatric surgery, the price is clear and fixed: “$12,000 flat fee $14,075 includes pulmonary and endoscopic workups.”  The hospital is also upfront about the cost of an inpatient psych visit: “Daily per diem rate of $960.00 covers admission to any of the three inpatient psychiatric units (Adult Voluntary, Geriatric, ICU). Daily per diem rate for a private room is $1,260.00.  Professional fees not included. All other hospital services included. This does not include inpatient admission for ECT.”

In another break with tradition, Huntington offers an uninsured “discount.”  Most hospitals charge the uninsured more than the rate paid by insured patients.

I read about Huntington Hospital in the LA Times earlier this week.

On its website, Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena allows people to select several common procedures and get an instant price quote, including an estimate of the patient’s share after plugging in their deductible and coinsurance. But even those numbers exclude the thousands of dollars that physicians, anesthesiologists and other specialists would tack on for most surgeries. Read the rest of this entry →

25 Million Americans Underinsured Including Middle and Upper Income Families

April 18, 2012 in health care costs, Health Insurance, Hospital Bills, Insurance Bills, Medical Debt, Medicare

As current government initiatives wrestle with the issue of millions of uninsured Americans facing potential medical bankruptcy, new studies are revealing that it’s not just the uninsured who are at risk. The issue of underinsured American individuals and families is becoming a major part of today’s healthcare conversation and alerting many more Americans to the dangers that they face, even if they have access to affordable health insurance policies.

Current statistics show a startling trend, where being underinsured is becoming a common way to fall into extreme medical debt and eventual bankruptcy or bad credit situations. Research by the Commonwealth Fund that appeared in recent industry journals shows that America’s underinsured community has doubled in the past four years to over 25 million people. While the highest number of underinsured Americans are in the income range below the poverty level, research shows that middle and upper income families are being affected in larger numbers each year. Research also shows that some individuals with what others would consider healthy annual incomes are still very likely to become underinsured in the immediate future.

In general, being underinsured has to do with the cost of one’s medical bills against that person’s annual income. Read the rest of this entry →

Confusopoly – The mystery of medical bills

April 16, 2012 in health care costs, Hospital Bills

Scott Adams introduced “confusopoly” in his book “The Dilbert Future” defining it as “a group of companies with similar products who intentionally confuse customers instead of competing on price”.

Two articles in the past few days have raised this issue. Robert S. Kaplan and Michael E. Porter of Harvard Business School NY Times op-ed “Why Medical Bills are a Mystery” and the LA Times “Healthcare pricing still a struggle for consumers”.

Why am I bringing Dilbert into this? Because the two articles highlight the detachment from patient reality by both hospitals and physician organizations. I doubt most physicians would be similarly detached if asked directly by a patient. The next time you face the confusopoly, consider asking your doctor for help and let’s see who’s side they’re on.


Great PBS Documentary on Cheaper AND Better Healthcare

April 14, 2012 in health care costs, Health Insurance, Hospital Bills, Insurance Bills, Medical Debt, Member Stories

Just watched ”U.S. Health Care: The Good News” (Episode: The Good News in American Medicine, with T.R. Reid) on PBS.   I was flipping through the channels and it caught my attention.  I watched ”Sicko” when it came out in movie theaters and before I finished my Coke I was convinced that we needed a major overhaul in medical care in the U.S.  It just doesn’t seem humane that people could die because of insurance loopholes or die because they don’t have enough money to pay for their healthcare.

Obviously nothing in life is free. Everything requires energy- which always equates to money in some way or another. Since energy (and money) are finite resources, the only solution seems to be in overhauling the entire system to make it cheaper to get and stay healthy.  And when I saw the part of the show’s title that said ”The Good News in American Medicine”, I had to watch.  Good news.  What is that?

I was very pleased to see there is good news out there. Many communities are doing a lot to overhaul the system and provide care to everyone, regardless of coverage, while bringing the costs way down. It was refreshing to see that people are trying and finding ways to succeed in this area.

I’d recommend watching this show and passing the link along to friends. The more people know about this, the more we have a chance at getting medical care costs down to manageable levels (and be a more humane society). The full video is here:

Upcoming Coding Changes Can Create Confusion

March 31, 2012 in health care costs, Health Insurance, Hospital Bills, Insurance Bills, Medical Care

As Americans continue to absorb the healthcare reform and projected modifications, the federal government is updating the way that medical services are coded and billed to consumers. The first mandate is HIPAA 5010, which is an update to the existing HIPAA format and the healthcare information processing systems. 5010 compliance is currently set for July 1, 2012. This will be followed by implementation of an updated coding system, ICD-10, which is to be effective October 1, 2013.

The existing coding system has approximately 13,600 codes while the updated system will have approximately 69,000 codes. The detailed coding system will allow for better analysis and treatment outcomes while providing payers with an initial claim submission that is much easier to understand. However, you may find interpreting your medical bill to be even more confusing as you may see more line item charges.

An example of this was recently reported in a Pennsylvania’s Fox News story. The patient was charged for an office visit and on top of this, she received a separate charge for a “consultation” when the doctor advised her to quit smoking.  Read the rest of this entry →

How much do I owe for out-of-network care?

March 30, 2012 in health care costs, Health Insurance, Hospital Bills, Insurance Bills, Medicare, Member Stories

Looking at Medicare- vs. “usual and customary”-based reimbursement

By Robin Gelburd

Many Americans with private health insurance have plans that reimburse for out-of-network care. But consumers often don’t realize the wide variation in reimbursement rates among insurers and the implications for their wallets.

At FAIR Health, the independent not-for-profit corporation dedicated to bringing transparency to healthcare costs and out-of-network reimbursement, we have noticed that differences in formulas can make a big difference in reimbursements.  A number of private health plans are now basing out-of-network reimbursement rates on a percentage of Medicare fees – as opposed to the usual, customary and reasonable (UCR) standards that reflect actual provider charges. Read the rest of this entry →

Before the Affordable Health Care Act, Were You Locked Out?

March 17, 2012 in health care costs, Health Insurance, Hospital Bills, Insurance Bills, Medicare

Locked out of medical care, that is. Who? Individuals with pre-existing conditions. Now, 50,000 of them have healthcare coverage via the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan (PCIP) in their state. This is a temporary high-risk health insurance program that makes healthcare not only available but much more affordable.

For example, a patient named Deborah fell victim to a back injury. It left her unemployed and unable to afford health insurance premiums. However, when she discovered the Michigan PCIP plan, she was able to enroll in it, receive the back surgery she needed and get on the road to recovery.

PCIP makes a difference. It has allowed many Americans to get connected to health insurance and receive the medical care they sorely need. That’s because PCIP enrollees can receive that care immediately.

The Affordable Health Care Act has also helped students up to age 26 receive coverage and assisted seniors by allowing access to more affordable prescription drugs.

You can see how your state administers PCIP by clicking here.