As health-care costs continue to soar, millions of confused consumers are paying medical bills they don't actually owe. Typically this occurs when an insurance plan covers less than what a doctor, hospital, or lab service wants to be paid. The health-care provider demands the balance from the patient. Uncertain and fearing the calls of a debt collector, the patient pays up.
Most consumers don't realize it, but this common practice, known as balance billing, often is illegal. When doctors or hospitals think an insurer has reimbursed too little, state and federal laws generally bar the medical providers from pressuring patients to pay the difference. Instead, doctors and hospitals should be wrangling directly with insurers. Economists and patient advocates estimate that consumers pay $1 billion or more a year for which they're not responsible.
Yolanda Fil, a 59-year-old McDonald's (MCD) cashier in Maple Shade, N.J., got tangled up with balance billing after gall bladder surgery in 2005. She and her husband, Leon, a retired state transportation worker, have coverage through Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey. Horizon made payments on Fil's behalf to the hospital, surgeon, and anesthesiologist. Then, in 2006, Vanguard Anesthesia Associates billed Fil for an unpaid balance of $518. Soon, a collection agency hired by Vanguard started calling Fil once a week, she says. Although she thought her co-payment and insurance should have covered the surgery, Fil eventually paid the $518, plus a $20 transaction fee. "I didn't have any choice," she says. "They threatened me with bad credit."CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE
Luckily for Fil, her insurer decided to get tough with Vanguard. In December 2006, Horizon Blue Cross sued the medical practice for balance billing Fil and more than 8,000 other policyholders who received invoices for a total of $4.3 million for service from 2004 to 2006. A New Jersey judge last year ordered Vanguard to stop billing the patients and provide refunds to those who had paid. Fil is awaiting her $538 refund. Vanguard didn't respond to requests for comment.
National statistics aren't available, but there's little doubt that many consumers unwittingly fall victim to balance billing. The California Association of Health Plans, a trade group in Sacramento, estimates that 1.76 million policyholders in that state received such bills in the past two years, totaling $528 million. The group found that 56% paid the bills. "Patients think they owe this money, and it causes tremendous stress and anxiety for people," says Cindy Ehnes, director of the California Managed Health Care Dept. "It is inappropriate to put the patient in the middle of this."
Balance billing most frequently occurs when medical providers participating in a managed-care network believe the plan's insurer is imposing too deep a discount on medical bills or is taking too long to pay. California, New Jersey, and 45 other states ban in-network providers from billing insured patients beyond co-payments or co-insurance required by the plan. Similarly, federal law prohibits providers from billing Medicare patients for unpaid balances.
These laws require medical providers to seek payment only from the insurer for services covered by the plan. Many states also shield insured patients from balance billing by out-of-network hospitals and doctors in emergencies, since patients usually don't control who treats them in those situations. (Bans on balance billing generally don't apply when a patient gets an elective procedure, such as cosmetic surgery, or seeks out-of-network, non-emergency service without a referral.)
Some physicians, hospitals, and labs take advantage of consumer befuddlement, argues Jane Cooper, CEO of Patient Care, a Milwaukee firm that employers hire to help insured workers fight billing mistakes. "Medical providers count on the fact people will pay these bills because they don't have time to figure it out," Cooper says.