Decode your medical bills
Before you pay, make sure you understand all of the charges.
Here are some tips.
Los Angles Times
By Francesca Lunzer Kritz
February 15, 2010
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
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
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,
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
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.
For particularly expensive bills, such as for a major operation
or long hospital stay, for which you paid completely out of
pocket or got little reimbursement, billing advocates may be
able to go to bat for you. Advocates may charge by the hour or
take a percentage -- often 20% to 30% -- of any money they are
able to reclaim from the insurance company. A few firms offer
this service free to their employees. More likely, the person
who handles insurance at your company can refer you to a billing
advocacy firm; so too can a hospital's patient advocate office.
Deal with doctor's office.
My biggest blunder: I should have asked the doctor if I could
have the lab work done at an in-network lab instead of at his
office. Less convenient for sure, but billing specialists say I
could have saved $400 or more.
Even if I'd decided to stick with the in-house tests, doctors
often will give a discount to patients paying in full, perhaps
as high as 35%. In my case, that would have been over $350.
Butcher says I likely would not have had to bring it up with the
doctor at all; many office managers are authorized to adjust
bills for patients. And they'll often discount a bill even for
patients paying in installments.
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