People with health insurance who get a medical bill this early in the new year may also get some sticker shock. Few will have satisfied their plan's annual deductible this soon, meaning they'll be responsible for a hefty portion of the bill, if not all of it.
That's especially true for patients who go out of network -- that is, use a doctor who doesn't accept their insurance or is not part of their managed-care plan.
I know this firsthand.
My portion of a bill from an out-of-network physician -- for an hourlong checkup that included lab work, an EKG and chest X-ray -- recently came to just over $1,000.
Regardless of the amount, all bills should be read carefully.
"Much of a doctor's bill and insurer's explanation of benefits can seem indecipherable, and often they are," says Tom Billet, a senior consultant on healthcare issues in the Stamford, Conn., office of benefits consulting firm Watson Wyatt. "Reviewing the doctor's bill to be sure they didn't add in services you didn't have, and reviewing the insurer's document to make sure the charges match what's in the doctor's bill, could save some people some money."
In my case, a review of the bill found no blatant mistakes, padded charges or unjust refusals by the insurer. But it did find that the doctor's office had charged for separate lab tests done with just one blood draw. The insurer flagged and allowed only a bundled test, the fee for which was much lower than the individual tests on the doctor's bill.
Reviewing medical bills and reimbursement notices -- and challenging them if necessary -- is crucial. Billet and other consultants offered these suggestions:
Pay attention to the details.
Whether or not you're insured, the doctor's office should give you an itemized bill accounting for any professional encounters and tests. Make sure you received all the services for which you were billed.
After breaking a toe several years ago, Billet was told he didn't need an X-ray because the treatment -- taping the toe to its neighbor -- is the same regardless of what the films show. But Billet's bill included an X-ray charge.
Even if you receive the bill in the office -- and must pay before leaving -- take the time to look it over and fix any mistakes. As Candy Butcher, chief executive of Medical Billing Advocates of America in Salem, Va., notes, getting a refund can be difficult. If the bill is complex, ask to take it home to review before making payment arrangements. If the office balks, ask if paying a small percentage of the bill will suffice.
Learn the terminology.
Insurers offer glossaries in their handbooks and on their websites explaining such terms as "deductible" and "co-payment/co-insurance." It's good to be comfortable with the terms, Billet says, so that you can explain discrepancies or overcharges. For example, people who are used to paying a flat-fee co-payment can be confused if they switch insurers and are now paying co-insurance, or a percentage of the fee. "Understanding the terms helps put you on a more equal footing with the insurance representative when you have your conversation," Billet says.
Read the remarks.
Insurers include number codes, typically explained at the end of the document, to let you know why they refused a particular charge. Dr. Geni Bennetts, formerly a pediatric oncologist and now a billing advocate based in Napa, says a common reason for refusal may be that a physician simply billed for generic lab tests and that the insurer needs to see specific tests listed, such as "lipid panel" or "complete blood screening" to determine whether the charge is eligible. In those cases, check with your insurer to see how a more detailed breakout would be resubmitted. The doctor's office may have to redo the numbers before the bill can be resubmitted.
Use customer service.
Don't hesitate to call your insurer about a charge you think should have been paid, or paid at a higher rate. For example, many insurers now charge a large share of an emergency room bill if there was no actual emergency -- sometimes a hard thing to determine at the time.
"If you think you had medical care that was justified but your insurer turns you down, call customer service, but then also ask for a supervisor if you think you're not being well served," says Helen Darling, head of the National Business Group on Health, an association that helps large corporations tame high healthcare costs. Other encounters worth an appeal to customer service include an appointment with an out-of-network specialist if the plan's network did not have someone with the same specialty or an emergency room visit for chest pains that turned out to be gas if the patient had a family history of heart disease.
No satisfaction from customer service? Insurers allow appeals, usually within 90 to 180 days of the date of payment for a denied claim. Check the manual or customer service number to find out how to file an appeal.
Consider a billing advocate.