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Finding the Services Insurers Don't Cover

October 16, 2000|DAVID OLMOS




Overview: Founded a little more than a year ago, HealthAllies is an effort to use the Internet as a middleman of sorts to help consumers find physicians and hospitals for medical services that aren't covered by health insurance or are only partially covered. Examples of such services are laser eye surgery, infertility treatments, cosmetic surgery and alternative therapies such as acupuncture and massage. The site promises to help consumers save "10% to 50% off of standard charges" for doctors' visits or hospital services.

What works: The concept behind HealthAllies is appealing and timely. Consumerism is all the rage in health care these days, and this site taps into that trend. The site is not your typical doctor-finder service. It does not require doctors or hospitals to pay a fee in order to be listed. And it won't accept payments from providers who want special placement or an exclusive listing, explains Dr. Michael Sherman, a HealthAllies vice president. The site promises to give the little guy access to the type of discounted fees that giant health plans are able to negotiate with doctors and hospitals. "We work alongside or in place of your insurance to get you access to the best medical care at the best rates," says the Web site. Beyond that, the site offers some extras: basic information on illnesses such as heart disease, news articles on medical subjects and resource lists, such as phone numbers, addresses and Web sites for government health agencies. When checking out a physician, the site provides additional information about the doctors' backgrounds and credentials. It also offers assistance helping you schedule doctor appointments or evaluating your medical bills for overcharges or other problems.

What Doesn't: At this stage, HealthAllies promises somewhat more than it delivers. Some doctor and hospital listings are spotty and will be of limited usefulness to consumers. When I queried the site for acupuncturists closest to my Los Angeles zip code, for example, I got back seven names: four California practitioners--the closest was in San Diego--and others in Texas and Florida. When I typed in arthroscopic surgeons, I got two listings for the same doctor--in Florida. I had better luck when I looked up doctors specializing in infertility--another medical service often not covered by insurance: 10 doctors within 10 miles. Sherman says that HealthAllies is adding doctors to its listings all the time but that many names not yet up on the Web site are available by calling a toll-free customer service phone number. The problem is the site doesn't inform me that the online listings are incomplete. Sherman also said HealthAllies plans to unveil expanded listings and an easier-to-use site sometime in November.

Another possible source of confusion are the discounts listed for physician services. For example, the listing of doctors who perform the popular Lasik eye surgery cited discounts of between 10% and 60%. My question: Are those true or inflated discounts? Sherman insists the discounts are based on actual fees that the doctors bill some patients and insurers.

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