Retiree Living the RV Dream Fights $12,387 Nightmare Lab Fee

Lorraine Rogge and her husband, Michael Rogge, travel the country in a recreational vehicle, a well-earned adventure in retirement. This spring found them parked in Artesia, New Mexico, for several months.


This story also ran on NPR. It can be republished for free.

In May, Rogge, 60, began to feel pelvic pain and cramping. But she had had a total hysterectomy in 2006, so the pain seemed unusual, especially because it lasted for days. She looked for a local gynecologist and found one who took her insurance at the Carlsbad Medical Center in Carlsbad, New Mexico, about a 20-mile drive from the RV lot.

The doctor asked if Rogge was sexually active, and she responded yes and that she had been married to Michael for 26 years. Rogge felt she made it clear that she is in a monogamous relationship. The doctor then did a gynecological examination and took a vaginal swab sample for laboratory testing.

The only lab test Rogge remembered discussing with the doctor was to see whether she had a yeast infection. She wasn’t given any medication to treat the pelvic pain and eventually it disappeared after a few days.

Then the bill came.

The Patient: Lorraine Rogge, 60. Her insurance coverage was an Anthem Blue Cross retiree plan through her husband’s former employer, with a deductible of $2,000 and out-of-pocket maximum of $6,750 for in-network providers.

Total Bill: Carlsbad Medical Center billed $12,386.93 to Anthem Blue Cross for a vaginosis, vaginitis and sexually transmitted infections (STI) testing panel. The insurer paid $4,161.58 on a negotiated rate of $7,172.05. That left Rogge responsible for $1,970 of her deductible and $1,040.36 coinsurance. Her total owed for the lab bill was $3,010.47. Rogge also paid $93.85 for the visit to the doctor.

Service Provider: Carlsbad Medical Center in Carlsbad, New Mexico. It is owned by Community Health Systems, a large for-profit chain of hospital systems based in Franklin, Tennessee, outside Nashville. The doctor Rogge saw works for Carlsbad Medical Center and its lab processed her test.

Medical Service: A bundled testing panel that looked for bacterial and yeast infections as well as common STIs, including chlamydia, gonorrhea and trichomoniasis.

What Gives: There were two things Rogge didn’t know as she sought care. First, Carlsbad Medical Center is notorious for its high prices and aggressive billing practices and, second, she wasn’t aware she would be tested for a wide range of sexually transmitted infections.

The latter bothered her a lot since she has been sexually active only with her husband. She doesn’t remember being advised about the STI testing at all. Nor was she questioned about whether she or her husband might have been sexually active with other people, which could have justified broader testing. They have been on the road together for five years.

“I was incensed that they ran these tests, when they just said they were going to run a yeast infection test,” said Rogge. “They ran all these tests that one would run on a very young person who had a lot of boyfriends, not a 60-year-old grandmother that’s been married for 26 years.”

Although a doctor doesn’t need a patient’s authorization to run tests, it’s not good practice to do so without informing the patient, said Dr. Ina Park, an associate professor of family community medicine at the University of California-San Francisco School of Medicine. That is particularly true with tests of a sensitive nature, like STIs. It is doubly true when the tests are going to costs thousands of dollars.

Park, an expert in sexually transmitted infections, also questioned the necessity of the full panel of tests for a patient who had a hysterectomy.

Beyond that, the pricing for these tests was extremely high. “It should not cost $12,000 to get an evaluation for vaginitis,” said Park.

Charles Root, an expert in lab billing, agreed.

“Quite frankly, the retail prices on [the bill] are ridiculous, they make no sense at all,” said Root. “Those are tests that cost about $10 to run.”

In fall 2019, The New York Times and CNN investigated Carlsbad Medical Center and found the facility had taken thousands of patients to court for unpaid hospital bills. Carlsbad Medical Center also has higher prices than many other facilities — a 2019 Rand Corp. study found that private insurance companies paid Carlsbad Medical Center 505% of what Medicare would pay for the same procedures.

The bundled testing panel run on Rogge’s sample was a Quest Diagnostics SureSwab Vaginosis Panel Plus. It included six types of tests. Quest Diagnostics didn’t provide the cost for the bundled tests, but Kim Gorode, a company spokesperson, said if the tests had been ordered directly through Quest rather than through the hospital, it was likely “the patient responsibility would have been substantially less.”

According to Medicare’s Clinical Laboratory Fee Schedule, Medicare would have reimbursed labs only about $40 for each test run on Rogge’s sample. And Medicaid would reimburse hospitals in New Mexico similarly, according to figures provided by Russell Toal, superintendent of New Mexico’s insurance department.

But hospitals and clinics can — and do — add substantial markups to clinical tests sent out to commercial labs.

Although private health insurance doesn’t typically reimburse hospitals at Medicare or Medicaid rates, Root said, private insurance reimbursement rates are rarely much more than 200% to 300% of Medicare’s rates. Assuming a 300% reimbursement rate, the total private insurance would have reimbursed for the six tests would have been $720.

That $720 is less than what Carlsbad Medical Center charged Rogge for her chlamydia test alone: $1,045. And for several of the tests, the medical center charged multiple quantities — presumably corresponding to how many species were tested for — elevating the cost of the yeast infection test to over $4,000.

Toal, who reviewed Rogge’s bill, called the prices “outrageous.”

Resolution: Rogge contacted Anthem Blue Cross and talked to a customer service representative, who submitted a fraud-and-waste claim and an appeal contending the charges were excessive.

The appeal was denied. Anthem Blue Cross told Rogge that under her plan the insurance company had paid the amount it was responsible for, and that based on her deductible and coinsurance amounts, she was responsible for the remainder.

Anthem Blue Cross said in a statement to KHN all the tests run on Rogge were approved and “paid for in accordance with Anthem’s pre-determined contracted rate with Carlsbad Medical Center.”

By the time Rogge’s appeal was denied, she had researched Carlsbad Medical Center and read the stories of patients being brought to court for medical bills they couldn’t pay. She had also gotten a notice from the hospital that her account would be sent to a collection agency if she didn’t pay the $3,000 balance.

Fearing the possibility of getting sued or ruining her credit, Rogge agreed to a plan to pay the bill over three years. She made three payments of $83.63 each in September, October and November, totaling $250.89.

After a Nov. 18 call and email from KHN, Carlsbad Medical Center called Rogge on Nov. 20 and said the remainder of her account balance would be waived.

Rogge was thrilled. We “aren’t the kind of people who have payment plans hanging over our heads,” she said, adding: “This is a relief.”

“I’m going to go on a bike ride now” to celebrate, she said.

The Takeaway: Particularly when visiting a doctor with whom you don’t have a long-standing trusted relationship, don’t be afraid to ask: How much is this test going to cost? Also ask for what, exactly, are you being tested? Do not be comforted by the facility’s in-network status. With coinsurance and deductibles, you can still be out a lot.

If it’s a blood test that will be sent out to a commercial lab like Quest Diagnostics anyway, ask the physician to just give you a requisition to have the blood drawn at the commercial lab. That way you avoid the markup. This advice is obviously not possible for a vaginal swab gathered in a doctor’s office.

Patients should always fight bills they believe are excessively high and escalate the matter if necessary.

Rogge started with her insurer and the provider, as should most patients with a billing question. But, as she learned: In American medicine, what’s legal and in accordance with an insurance contract can seem logically absurd. Still, if you get no satisfaction from your initial inquiries, be aware of options for taking your complaints further.

Every state and U.S. territory has a department that regulates the insurance industry. In New Mexico, that’s the Office of the Superintendent of Insurance. Consumers can look up their state’s department on the National Association of Insurance Commissioners website.

Toal, the insurance superintendent in New Mexico, said his office doesn’t (and no office in the state does that he’s aware of) have the authority to tell a hospital its prices are too high. But he can look into a bill like Rogge’s if a complaint is filed with his office.

“If the patient wants, they can request an independent review, so the bill would go to an independent organization that could see if it was medically necessary,” Toal said.

That wasn’t needed in this case because Rogge’s bill was waived. And after being contacted by KHN, Melissa Suggs, a spokesperson with Carlsbad Medical Center, said the facility is revising their lab charges.

“Pricing for these services will be lower in the future,” Suggs said in a statement.

Bill of the Month is a crowdsourced investigation by KHN and NPR that dissects and explains medical bills. Do you have an interesting medical bill you want to share with us? Tell us about it!

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Readers and Tweeters Defend Front-Line Nurses and Blind Us With Science

Letters to the Editor is a periodic feature. We welcome all comments and will publish a selection. We edit for length and clarity and require full names.

The demand for skilled nurses during the pandemic is through the roof! Travel nurses command a hefty salary and they are worth every penny… #COVID19 #pandemic #RN https://t.co/gYQpkHqaoX

— Talmage Egan, MD (@UofU_Anes_Chair) November 26, 2020

— Dr. Talmage Egan, Salt Lake City

Nurses Deserve to Be Paid Handsomely

I read your article “Need a COVID-19 Nurse? That’ll Be $8,000 a Week” (Nov. 24) in the Springfield Journal-Register. It was an interesting article as I have a daughter who is a nurse. Nurses have been underpaid and unappreciated for years. It made me angry that the article characterized the wages some hospitals are willing to pay for nurses as exorbitant. Hogwash if you think someone should risk their life every hour of the day to care for COVID patients without proper compensation. How many doctors make over a million a year? You don’t cite that as unusual. I feel that nurses should go for the gold as they have been taken advantage of for years and, too bad, but good for them. Choose your words more carefully in the future. Nurses ROCK!!!!

— Mike Booher, Lincoln, Illinois

Hospitals go out of their way to avoid competing for nursing labor by raising wages. Now hospital executives and public health advocates act like it’s a travesty that COVID nurses are finally getting paid market rates to take on risky jobs. https://t.co/6z0idToVn6

— Devon M. Herrick (@DevonHerrick) November 24, 2020

— Devon M. Herrick, Dallas

Missing in the Mix of Vaccine Coverage

I must note two important omissions in the article “Time to Discuss Potentially Unpleasant Side Effects of COVID Shots? Scientists Say Yes” (Nov. 12). First, although these were interim trial results, the placebo arm should also have been reported out. What was the placebo infection rate? Reporting 90% effectiveness is irrelevant without reporting the placebo rate simultaneously. And one needs to align the infection rate in trial subjects with the incidence of disease in the U.S. population. They should be similar, but if not, any discrepancy must be explained (such as, no elderly people or children participating in the trial). Secondly, and perhaps more important: What other mitigating measures were volunteers in this trial required/advised to take? For example, physical distancing, masks, etc. I could find no mention of this, positively or negatively, when reading the protocol on clinicaltrials.gov. Any vaccine alone could not provide 94.5% efficacy. To determine the relative contributions of other measures, you’d need, say, a four-arm study — placebo with mask, placebo without mask, vaccine with mask, vaccine without mask. Statistically and clinically, one must account for other variables that may confound an apparent result.

This is a crucial point as the lay public is thinking that, by getting the vaccine, masks might no longer be necessary and they’ll have a 95% chance of not being infected. This is rubbish. The media and the public “experts” need to address this as they are setting themselves up for an immense PR failure and still greater skepticism. People may need to wear masks for many more months, maybe years, even with an effective vaccine.

— Stephen Zaruby, Truckee, California

I’m already confused 😕 https://t.co/UlJPh2EEvK

— hameen tariq (@hameentariq) November 23, 2020

— Hameen Tariq, Wilmington, Delaware

Exploring Cancer Drug’s Effects on COVID

Your story “Clots, Strokes and Rashes: Is COVID a Disease of the Blood Vessels?” (Nov. 13) was reprinted in my local newspaper. My brother, James L. Kinsella Ph.D., led the original work at the National Institutes of Health researching how the chemotherapy drug Taxol could reduce inflammation in coronary articles following the placement of coronary stents. This led to the very effective use of drug-eluting coronary stents. My unprofessional musing causes me to wonder if this anti-inflammatory response to Taxol might have some application as an early therapeutic intervention to reduce the inflammatory response of COVID-19 being studied by Dr. William Li. I can’t ask my brother; he passed away.

— Rick Kinsella, Oneida, New York

He wouldn’t be dead without covid. We’ve learned that things that aren’t life threatening are made life threatening by this disease. It attacks your blood vessels so it can exacerbate anything anywhere in your body that uses blood vessels. Stay safe indeed https://t.co/BFsqrKSFmH

— James McPicnic (@WhiteRatbit) December 3, 2020

— James “J.P.” McPicnic, Los Angeles

Women’s Health Should Not Be Up for Debate

Birth control medication is so much more than a pawn in politics (“Coming Abortion Fight Could Threaten Birth Control, Too,” Nov. 5). It changes the lives of so many women for the better. Birth control access has been proven to lead to higher rates of education for women, lower levels of child poverty, lower Medicaid costs for women’s health and higher productivity of society as a whole. It also treats a large number of medical conditions associated with women’s health. It effectively treats severe menstrual migraines, hormonal acne, endometriosis, severe menstrual pain, uterine abnormalities, anemia and heavy menstrual bleeding, among other health conditions. This medication is involved in treating so many women’s health concerns, improves infant and child health outcomes, and reduces child poverty, and yet almost 20 million women in the U.S. currently have no access to birth control medication. American politicians need to consider, if nothing else, the spillover costs to society when birth control access is reduced.

Women’s reproductive health should not be up for debate and yet it is at the center of so many political agendas. As a 24-year-old woman pursuing dual master’s degrees in public health and physician assistant studies, my focus should be on learning to become an exceptional health care provider, not whether my health will be up for debate in court. If politicians truly have the best interests of Americans at heart, they should be looking to expand birth control access, not restrict it.  Evidence needs to be incorporated into political agendas, and the evidence shows that when women succeed, society succeeds. Women’s education, health and reproductive rights should be at the forefront of every discussion on what constitutes a thriving population — the evidence has proven that women’s autonomy holds the answer and access to birth control is a vital piece of that.

— Gabby Henshue, Madison, Wisconsin

Scary times for women’s bodies.

“States could effectively ban contraception by arguing that some contraceptives act as abortifacients.” Threat is real. I’ve worked in states where this argument has been made.https://t.co/LmdWFRUNOZ

— Elizabeth M. Baskett (@EMBaskett) November 11, 2020

— Elizabeth M. Baskett, Denver

Injustice in High Gear

I was appalled at the charges on the medical bill from the Carson City emergency department for that child who fell off his bike (“Bill of the Month: After Kid’s Minor Bike Accident, Major Bill Sets Legal Wheels in Motion,” Nov. 25) — $18,000 for an exam and stitches? What would it take to sort out such problems in our health system? Lower prices from providers could only result in lower insurance premiums.

— Karen Johnson, San Rafael, California

Attempted subrogation, man, I tell yah https://t.co/spxcMlSiCk

— Annie M. Davidson (@attyannie) November 25, 2020

— Annie M. Davidson, St. Paul, Minnesota

KHN Morning Briefing: A Wealth of Information in One Spot!

I just wanted to say it is awesome to have portions of articles from many major news outlets because never does one tell the whole story. Case in point: I was trying to research what exactly President Donald Trump had done that “allowed doctors to discriminate against LGBT people,” and it was very helpful having a wide array of media sources on a single page to help get the bigger picture and try and weed through the bias of all of them (“Trump Administration’s Expanded Conscience Rule Will Allow Medical Professionals To Refuse To Provide Health Care Services,” May 3). Just sending my compliments. Keep up the great work.

— Nolan Steeley, Greensburg, Pennsylvania

💥Racism in #healthcare undermines #quality of care and patient safety. There’s hard work to be done to weed it out of all parts of society, especially clinical care. https://t.co/TbK0yIuraB

— Natalie S. Burke (@natalie4health) November 28, 2020

— Natalie S. Burke, Washington, D.C.

Education and Coverage Gaps Lead to Avoidable Amputations 

Coming to terms with systemic racism in health care is long overdue (“What Doctors Aren’t Always Taught: How to Spot Racism in Health Care,” Nov. 17). The way medicine is taught and the payment policies that shape the system have created persistent disparities in patient outcomes across racial and ethnic groups.

As a result, Black Americans are 80% more likely than whites to be diagnosed with diabetes and are twice as likely to die from the disease. Furthermore, Black American patients are up to four times more likely to experience an amputation than their white counterparts due to advanced peripheral artery disease (PAD), a common complication for people with diabetes and other chronic conditions. Similarly, Latinos are up to 75% more likely to experience an amputation than whites, while Native Americans are twice as likely to lose a limb.

As many as 85% of the nation’s 200,000 non-traumatic amputations could be prevented with access to screening and early detection. By screening for PAD through non-invasive arterial testing, the likelihood of an individual needing a PAD-related amputation can be reduced by up to 90%. Unfortunately, too few Americans — particularly racial and ethnic minorities — are even offered routine screening for PAD due to a widespread lack of understanding about the disease, as well as structural coverage barriers to simple, painless tests. As a result, many do not even know they have the disease until it is too late to save their limbs.

Communities of color deserve better. Members of the Congressional PAD Caucus — led by Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-N.J.) — recently introduced the Amputation Reduction and Compassion (ARC) Act to establish an education program about the disease — particularly for high-risk populations — and update reimbursement policy to disallow payment for non-emergent amputations unless arterial testing has been done in the three months before amputation. These simple solutions have the power to prevent thousands of avoidable amputations, and begin to correct health disparities in minority communities.

While we still have a long way to go as our country continues to grapple with systemic racism in health care, the ARC Act represents an important step toward ending disparities in PAD care.

— Dr. Foluso Fakorede, CEO of Cardiovascular Solutions of Central Mississippi, Cleveland, Mississippi

Racism in Health Care? Another example of injecting Politics. Inarguably, racism exists everywhere, but to make this a big issue is a disservice. Diff DX requires inclusion of Race/Ethnicity, to wit: Sickle Cell in Blacks,Alpha & Beta Thalassemia in Asians https://t.co/xyP54dPjH8

— Alexander R. Lim, MD (@AlexanderLim13) November 25, 2020

— Dr. Alexander R. Lim, Corpus Christi, Texas

‘Obamacare’ Unfairly Politicizes Health Law

I found this article interesting (“Biden Plan to Lower Medicare Eligibility Age to 60 Faces Hostility From Hospitals,” Nov. 11) but was surprised that the Affordable Care Act was referred to as “Obamacare.” Please don’t politicize the ACA — we really need it to continue allowing people to access health care. Many people do not have health care through their workplace and are unable to afford private insurance premiums. I was once one of those people before I was hired at our local library. It was really tough. Thank you for your reporting.

— Pamela Elicker, Port Townsend, Washington

Putting People First on the Podcast

When you were talking about drug policy and the ballot in a recent podcast (“KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: Change Is in the Air,” Nov. 6), you used terms that are considered incorrect or stigmatizing. For example, saying “opioid epidemic” when it’s really a crisis and referring to substance use as “abuse.” The Associated Press and NPR, among others, have pledged to use people-first language, as also supported by the American Psychological Association.

— Deirdre Dingman, Philadelphia

The Backbone of the Insurance Industry

It’s disingenuous to assert that people “can’t always rely on insurance brokers to give them accurate information or steer them to comprehensive coverage” based on the unfortunate experience of one consumer with a short-term health plan, as Michelle Andrews did in the article “Think Your Health Care Is Covered? Beware of the ‘Junk’ Insurance Plan” (Dec. 4).

Agents and brokers are crucial to our nation’s efforts to get people covered. This year, they assisted almost half of all healthcare.gov enrollees — and brought 1.12 million new enrollees into the marketplace. It’s no wonder that a new report from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has called agents and brokers “instrumental in driving greater participation in the individual health insurance market.”

Further, agents and brokers have long maintained that short-term plans are not appropriate substitutes for comprehensive exchange coverage. We at the National Association of Health Underwriters stated as much in official comments filed with the Trump administration before it finalized a rule extending the duration of short-term plans to 12 months.

— Janet Trautwein, CEO of the National Association of Health Underwriters, Washington, D.C.

 


Not Tickling My Funny Bone

You ought to find some cartoonists who are not so flagrantly left-leaning — continuing to provide left-sided commentary is not right. It’s like all of the news stations pushing for socialism.

— Harry Gousha, Upland, California

Editor’s note: It is the tradition and mission among editorial cartoonists to satirize those in power. As with the nation’s leadership, the targets of political cartoons toggle from right to left. Balance is not these artists’ goal, but over time their commentary balances out. Stick with us, and we hope to amuse you in the future.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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After Kid’s Minor Bike Accident, Major Bill Sets Legal Wheels in Motion

Adam Woodrum was out for a bike ride with his wife and kids on July 19 when his then 9-year-old son, Robert, crashed.

“He cut himself pretty bad, and I could tell right away he needed stitches,” said Woodrum.


This story also ran on NPR. It can be republished for free.

Because they were on bikes, he called the fire department in Carson City, Nevada.

“They were great,” said Woodrum. “They took him on a stretcher to the ER.”

Robert received stitches and anesthesia at Carson Tahoe Regional Medical Center. He’s since recovered nicely.

Then the denial letter came.

The Patient: Robert Woodrum, covered under his mother’s health insurance plan from the Nevada Public Employees’ Benefits Program

Total Bill: $18,933.44, billed by the hospital

Service Provider: Carson Tahoe Regional Medical Center, part of not-for-profit Carson Tahoe Health

Medical Service: Stitches and anesthesia during an emergency department visit

What Gives: The Aug. 4 explanation of benefits (EOB) document said the Woodrum’s claim had been rejected and their patient responsibility would be the entire sum of $18,933.44.

This case involves an all-too-frequent dance between different types of insurers about which one should pay a patient’s bill if an accident is involved. All sides do their best to avoid paying. And, no surprise to Bill of the Month followers: When insurers can’t agree, who gets a scary bill? The patient.

The legal name for the process of determining which type of insurance is primarily responsible is subrogation.

Could another policy — say, auto or home coverage or workers’ compensation — be obligated to pay if someone was at fault for the accident?

Subrogation is an area of law that allows an insurer to recoup expenses should a third party be found responsible for the injury or damage in question.

Health insurers say subrogation helps hold down premiums by reimbursing them for their medical costs.

About two weeks after the accident, Robert’s parents — both lawyers — got the EOB informing them of the insurer’s decision.

The note also directed questions to Luper Neidenthal & Logan, a law firm in Columbus, Ohio, that specializes in helping insurers recover medical costs from “third parties,” meaning people found at fault for causing injuries.

The firm’s website boasts that “we collect over 98% of recoverable dollars for the State of Nevada.”

Another letter also dated Aug. 4 soon arrived from HealthScope Benefits, a large administrative firm that processes claims for health plans.

The claim, it said, included billing codes for care “commonly used to treat injuries” related to vehicle crashes, slip-and-fall accidents or workplace hazards. Underlined for emphasis, one sentence warned that the denied claim would not be reconsidered until an enclosed accident questionnaire was filled out.

Adam Woodrum, who happens to be a personal injury attorney, runs into subrogation all the time representing his clients, many of whom have been in car accidents. But it still came as a shock, he said, to have his health insurer deny payment because there was no third party responsible for their son’s ordinary bike accident. And the denial came before the insurer got information about whether someone else was at fault.

“It’s like deny now and pay later,” he said. “You have insurance and pay for years, then they say, ‘This is denied across the board. Here’s your $18,000 bill.’”

When contacted, the Public Employees’ Benefits Program in Nevada would not comment specifically on Woodrum’s situation, but a spokesperson sent information from its health plan documents. She referred questions to HealthScope Benefits about whether the program’s policy is to deny claims first, then seek more information. The Little Rock, Arkansas-based firm did not return emails asking for comment.

The Nevada health plan’s documents say state legislation allows the program to recover “any and all payments made by the Plan” for the injury “from the other person or from any judgment, verdict or settlement obtained by the participant in relation to the injury.”

Attorney Matthew Anderson at the law firm that handles subrogation for the Nevada health plan said he could not speak on behalf of the state of Nevada, nor could he comment directly on Woodrum’s situation. However, he said his insurance industry clients use subrogation to recoup payments from other insurers “as a cost-saving measure,” because “they don’t want to pass on high premiums to members.”

Despite consumers’ unfamiliarity with the term, subrogation is common in the health insurance industry, said Leslie Wiernik, CEO of the National Association of Subrogation Professionals, the industry’s trade association.

“Let’s say a young person falls off a bike,” she said, “but the insurer was thinking, ‘Did someone run him off the road, or did he hit a pothole the city didn’t fill?’”

Statistics on how much money health insurers recover through passing the buck to other insurers are hard to find. A 2013 Deloitte consulting firm study, commissioned by the Department of Labor, estimated that subrogation helped private health plans recover between $1.7 billion and $2.5 billion in 2010 — a tiny slice of the $849 billion they spent that year.

Medical providers may have reason to hope that bills will be sent through auto or homeowner’s coverage, rather than health insurance, as they’re likely to get paid more.

That’s because auto insurers “are going to pay billed charges, which are highly inflated,” said attorney Ryan Woody, who specializes in subrogation. Health insurers, by contrast, have networks of doctors and hospitals with whom they negotiate lower payment rates.

Resolution: Because of his experience as an attorney, Woodrum felt confident it would eventually all work out. But the average patient wouldn’t understand the legal quagmire and might not know how to fight back.

“I hear the horror stories every day from people who don’t know what it is, are confused by it and don’t take appropriate action,” Woodrum said. “Then they’re a year out with no payment on their bills.” Or, fearing for their credit, they pay the bills.

After receiving the accident questionnaire, Woodrum filled it out and sent it back. There was no liable third party, he said. No driver was at fault.

His child just fell off his bicycle.

HealthScope Benefits reconsidered the claim. It was paid in September, two months after the accident. The hospital received less than half of what it originally billed, based on rates negotiated through his health plan.

The insurer paid $7,414.76 of the cost, and the Woodrums owed $1,853.45, which represented their share of the deductibles and copays.

The Takeaway: The mantra of Bill of the Month is don’t just write the check. But also don’t ignore scary bills from insurers or hospitals.

It’s not uncommon for insured patients to be questioned on whether their injury or medical condition might have been related to an accident. On some claim forms, there is even a box for the patient to check if it was an accident.

But in the Woodrums’ case, as in others, it was an automatic process. The insurer denied the claim based solely on the medical code indicating a possible accident.

If an insurer denies all payment for all medical care related to an injury, suspect that some type of subrogation is at work.

Don’t panic.

If you get an accident questionnaire, “fill it out, be honest about what happened,” said Sean Domnick, secretary of the American Association for Justice, an organization of plaintiffs lawyers. Inform your insurer and all other parties of the actual circumstances of the injury.

And do so promptly.

That’s because the clock starts ticking the day the medical care is provided and policyholders may face a statutory or contractual requirement that medical bills be submitted within a specific time frame, which can vary.

“Do not ignore it,” said Domnick. “Time and delay can be your enemy.”

Bill of the Month is a crowdsourced investigation by KHN and NPR that dissects and explains medical bills. Do you have an interesting medical bill you want to share with us? Tell us about it!

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: As Cases Spike, White House Declares Pandemic Over

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White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said this week that “we’re not going to control the pandemic,” effectively conceding that the administration has pivoted from prevention to treatment. But COVID-19 cases are rising rapidly in most of the nation, and the issue is playing large in the presidential campaign. President Donald Trump is complaining about the constant news reports about the virus, prompting former President Barack Obama to say Trump is “jealous of COVID’s media coverage.”

Meanwhile, as the case challenging the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act heads to the Supreme Court on Nov. 10, open enrollment for individual health insurance under the law begins Sunday.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Joanne Kenen of Politico, Tami Luhby of CNN and Anna Edney of Bloomberg News.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • Whichever candidate wins the presidency next week will have a heavy lift in mounting a strong public response to battle COVID-19. Polls suggest about a third of people do not believe some of the basic science about the virus or its prevention, such as that using masks can help stem transmission.
  • Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who once served as Food and Drug Administration commissioner under Trump, called for a temporary national mask mandate in his column in The Wall Street Journal. He suggested that masks should not be a political issue.
  • Gottlieb’s column has been supported by other commentators who suggest that masks need to become a social and cultural norm and compare the debate over their use to similar debates in the past about seat belts, smoking bans and harsh punishments for driving while intoxicated. Those measures all faced opposition from people who complained about civil liberties but gradually became accepted. The difference now is that public health advocates are looking for a quick acceptance of masks.
  • Part of the resistance to wearing face masks is that many people don’t understand their purpose and presume masks are for their own protection. But public health officials advocate masks as a way to protect others, especially vulnerable people, from any virus a mask wearer might shed, often without even realizing it.
  • Drugmakers and health experts are rolling back expectations about the timing of a COVID vaccine as the trials seek more data. One issue may be that not enough people in the placebo groups have contracted the coronavirus. That could be because people who volunteer for such an endeavor may be more aware of health issues and cautious about the disease.
  • Once a vaccine is approved, FDA and other federal health officials will face a number of complicating issues. Among them: How should trials of other vaccine candidates continue and how should the vaccine be distributed?
  • Enrollment for insurance plans on the Affordable Care Act’s marketplaces begins Sunday, but many consumers could be forgiven for not knowing that. There is precious little marketing or advertising for the plans, and some people think the Supreme Court is going to overturn the ACA, anyway, and its plans will go away. That’s not known yet and it may well be summer 2021 before there is an answer on that.

Also this week, Rovner interviews KHN’s Anna Almendrala, who reported the latest NPR-KHN “Bill of the Month” installment, about a patient who did everything right and got a big bill anyway. If you have an outrageous medical bill you would like to share with us, you can do that here.

Plus, for extra credit, the panelists recommend their favorite health policy stories of the week they think you should read, too:

Julie Rovner: The New York Times’ “A Chance to Expand Medicaid Rallies Democrats in Crucial North Carolina,” by Abby Goodnough

Joanne Kenen: The New Yorker’s “A President Looks Back on His Toughest Fight,” by Barack Obama

Tami Luhby: KHN’s “Florida Fails to Attract Bidders for Canada Drug Importation Program,” by Phil Galewitz

Anna Edney: The Wall Street Journal’s “Health Agency Halts Coronavirus Ad Campaign, Leaving Santa Claus in the Cold,” by Julie Wernau, James V. Grimaldi and Stephanie Armour

To hear all our podcasts, click here.

And subscribe to What the Health? on iTunesStitcherGoogle PlaySpotify, or Pocket Casts.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Savvy Patient Fought for the Price She Was Quoted − And Didn’t Give Up

When Tiffany Qiu heard how much her surgery was going to cost her, she was sure the hospital’s financial department had made a mistake. Qiu, who already knew from a breast cancer scare earlier that year that her plan required a 30% coinsurance payment on operations, pressed the person on the phone several times to make sure she had heard correctly: Her coinsurance payment would be only 20% if she had the procedure at Palomar Medical Center in Poway, California, about 38 miles south of where Qiu lives.

“I was kind of in doubt, so I called them a second time,” said Qiu. “They gave me the exact same amount.”

Qiu had been diagnosed with uterine polyps, a benign condition that was making her periods heavier and more unpredictable. Her OB-GYN proposed removing them but said it was safe to wait. Qiu said that she asked about the possibility of doing it in the doctor’s office under local anesthesia to make the procedure cheaper, but that her doctor rebuffed her suggestion because of her preference for general anesthesia.

Because Qiu thought she was getting a deal on her usual 30% share of the bill, she decided to go ahead with the polyp removal on Nov. 5, 2019. As she sat in the waiting room filling out forms, staffers let her know she needed to pay in full before the surgery.

Unease set in. The hospital asked for the 20% coinsurance — $1,656.10 — that she had been quoted over the phone, but Qiu hadn’t been told she needed to pay on the day of the procedure. As she handed over her credit card, she confirmed one more time that this would be her total patient responsibility, barring complications.

The surgery was over in less than 30 minutes, and she walked out of the hospital with her husband, feeling perfectly fine.

Then the bill came.

Patient: Tiffany Qiu is a 49-year-old real estate agent and mother of two who lives in Temecula, California. Her family of four is covered by a Blue Shield of California policy that she and her husband purchased on the marketplace. Last year, they paid a $1,455 monthly premium, with an individual annual $1,850 deductible and an individual out-of-pocket maximum of $7,550.

Total Bill: Palomar Health billed Blue Shield $22,219.64 for the polyp removal, which the insurer negotiated down to $8,576.79. Blue Shield paid $5,769.72 and stated in an explanation of benefits document that Qiu was responsible for a $334.32 deductible and $2,472.75 coinsurance.

Because Qiu had already paid $1,873.20 on the day of surgery, the hospital billed her an additional $933.87, which meant Qiu was on the hook for the remainder of her 30% coinsurance.

These figures don’t include the fees Qiu paid for anesthesia or her doctor’s services.

Service Provider: Palomar Medical Center in Poway is one of three hospitals in the Palomar Health system. Palomar Health is a San Diego County public health care district, which means the health care facilities are nonprofit and receive property taxes as a portion of their revenue stream. The system is governed by a board of directors elected from within the district’s boundaries.

What Gives: Hospitals and surgery centers sometimes offer discounts if patients are uninsured and able to pay with cash or a credit card. Physicians may even offer discounts on a patient’s share of the costs if they know the patient is unemployed or has fallen on hard times. But regularly offering discounts to attract patients is not common, and could even be fraudulent if the patients are insured through Medicare, said Paul Ginsburg, director of the USC-Brookings Schaeffer Initiative for Health Policy.

In Qiu’s case, the hospital seemed to be offering a discount on the insurer’s normally required coinsurance.

“The hospital would be in breach of their contract with the insurance if they did not bill her for that amount,” said Martine Brousse, a California-based patient advocate and medical billing consultant for AdvimedPRO. “She owes what the insurance has calculated, and the facility has every right to demand payment.”

Copayments and coinsurance exist, in theory, so patients have “skin in the game.” They have to pay a clearly defined portion of the cost of their care, according to their policy, so they will shop around and use medical care judiciously (though many health experts say coinsurance amounts have gotten so high that many cannot afford them).

Resolution: If she hadn’t been quoted 20%, Qiu said, she would have shopped for a better deal. She flies to China often to visit her mother and was open to getting the surgery done there.

Qiu called the hospital to ask why she was being billed a second time, despite the lack of complications during the surgery. She remembers the back-and-forth over the remaining bill was exhausting, especially because it happened over the holidays.

“I got tired and said, ‘I don’t want to play this game anymore,’” Qiu recalled. “‘If you want to send it to collections, you can do it, but I’m not going to pay for it.’”

The bill landed at a collection agency called IC System. In a May 23 phone call, Qiu said, a representative offered to slash the remaining bill by 25% if she would just pay that day.

But Qiu refused, though she could easily afford to pay. She’s undaunted by the risk the unpaid bill poses to her credit score, preferring instead to fight the hospital on behalf of other patients who may not have the time or luxury to persist.

The experience left her feeling as if the hospital offered her a fake discount to reel in her business.

“I double-checked and tripled-checked with them,” Qiu said. “They have financial departments that should be verifying this with my insurance company.”

Another thing to note is how much the hospital billed Qiu for a simple outpatient procedure: $22,219.64. That amount is “totally laughable,” said Dr. Merrit Quarum, founder of WellRithms, a company that works with self-funded employers and other clients to make sense of complex medical claims.

Not only is the charge far out of line with what that procedure typically costs in that region (around $5,500), but Qiu is now stuck paying a larger amount as her share under the terms of her insurance. This is how those “sticker prices” that few people pay still drive up costs for individuals.

After a reporter’s call, Palomar Health looked back at phone records, confirmed Qiu’s version of events and said a hospital staffer had made a mistake by quoting her a 20% cost-sharing obligation. That percentage then got automatically put into her patient notes and was on the bill of estimated costs she signed and paid on the day of surgery, even though it was incorrect.

They apologized for giving the mistaken impression that Qiu was getting a discount. Staff members are not authorized to offer discounts when providing estimates, said Derryl Acosta, a spokesman for Palomar Health.

Acosta also pointed out other communication breakdowns, like dropping the complaint Qiu phoned in after she received the second bill in late November. Her issue did not get put into the standard customer complaint process, which would have elevated the problem and triggered an investigation into the phone records. That’s why Qiu’s bill was sent to the collection agency.

“We definitely admit that the call should have been handled differently,” Acosta said. “We now have a new call center that we believe will handle this type of call better.”

Because Palomar Health was able to see in their phone records that a staffer had confirmed the erroneous 20% coinsurance amount to Qiu, the health system will change her bill to reflect what she was promised. Qiu will get a statement in the mail saying she has a zero balance, Acosta said.

The Takeaway: Multiple medical billing advocates who reviewed Qiu’s case praised her for her tenacity in calling the hospital financial department twice before the procedure. But as she herself acknowledged, most people don’t have the time or spine to fight.

To avoid such situations, experts advised, patients should check in with their insurer about the discounts offered, as hospital staffers may be poorly trained or ill informed.

If a patient hears conflicting information about charges before a procedure, they need to approach their insurer to confirm the details of their own policy, said Brousse, the patient advocate.

The simple fact that a hospital staffer misinformed a patient isn’t a legal reason to force a hospital to lower a bill, Brousse said.

Also, get promises in writing — before the day of surgery. Make sure the offer is explicit about which services are included and what might count as a complication. Ask whether you’ll have to pay upfront.

Initial estimated bills can be full of asterisks and “weasel words,” said Akshay Gupta, co-founder of CoPatient, a medical bill review and patient advocacy company.

“Even though she tried to be diligent, obviously she still didn’t know that she would need to get something that was legally enforceable,” said Gupta.

Dan Weissmann, host of the podcast “An Arm and a Leg,” reported the radio interview of this story. Joe Neel of NPR produced the interview with KHN Editor-in-Chief Elisabeth Rosenthal on “Morning Edition.”

Bill of the Month is a crowdsourced investigation by KHN and NPR that dissects and explains medical bills. Do you have an interesting medical bill you want to share with us? Tell us about it!

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Moved by Plight of Young Heart Patient, Stranger Pays His Hospital Bill

Even with insurance, Matthew Fentress faced a medical bill of more than $10,000 after a heart operation. A cook at a senior living community in Kentucky, he figured he could never pay what he owed — until a stranger who lives 2,000 miles away stepped in to help.

“The system still failed me,” said Fentress, 31. “It was humanity that stepped up.”

Karen Fritz, a retired college professor in Las Vegas, saw part of his story on “CBS This Morning,” which partners with KHN and NPR on the crowdsourced Bill of the Month investigation. Fritz found the story online, and then she called the hospital to donate $5,000 toward Fentress’ bill.

“I’ve been a young person in college with medical bills. I just really felt convicted to help him out, to help him get beyond his financial struggles. I had no hesitation; I felt led by the Holy Spirit to do that,” said Fritz, 64, who taught business and marketing at various schools. “When you help other people, it gives you joy.”

Fentress was just 25 when doctors diagnosed him with viral cardiomyopathy, a heart disease that developed after a bout of the flu. In his six years of grappling with that chronic condition, which could lead to heart failure, he had already been sued by his hospital after missing a payment and declared bankruptcy.

Financial fears reignited this year when his cardiologist suggested he undergo an ablation procedure to restore a normal heart rhythm. He said hospital officials at Baptist Health Louisville assured him he wouldn’t be on the hook for more than $7,000, a huge stretch on his $30,000 annual salary.

Though the procedure went well, the bill filled him with dread. His portion totaled more than $10,000 for the ablation and related visits in 2019 and 2020. After an adjustment, a spokesperson for his insurer, United Healthcare, said he owed nearly $7,900. That was the same as the annual out-of-pocket maximum for in-network care under his plan, which also included a $1,500 annual deductible. Like millions of other Americans, Fentress is considered underinsured.

Fentress said he learned about Fritz’s donation when he got a call from a hospital representative. He submitted a recent pay stub to the hospital, and its financial aid program covered the rest.

Hospital officials said Fentress at one point had been under the incorrect impression that he’d have to pay big monthly payments and couldn’t apply for financial assistance because he’d gotten it before.

“Baptist Health consistently has encouraged Mr. Fentress to apply for financial assistance to provide the information we need to determine a qualifying amount,” Charles Colvin, Baptist Health’s vice president for revenue strategy, said in a statement. “We are pleased to have received the additional information needed to provide that financial assistance.”

Fentress said he’s incredibly grateful to Fritz. He plans to stay in touch with her, and he’s sending her a T-shirt he designed with a picture of a heart and the words “Be nice.”

“This is the first time ever since I was 25 that I haven’t had medical debt. It’s a wonderful feeling. It gives me a lot of peace of mind,” Fentress said. “But I feel guilty that a lot of other people are still suffering.”

Do you have an interesting medical bill you want to share with us? Tell us about it!

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Watch: Young Man Faces Medical Bankruptcy — Even With Insurance

“CBS This Morning” tells the story of Matthew Fentress, a young man who developed serious heart disease after a bout of flu when he was just 25. Now 31, he owes more than $10,000 in hospital bills. KHN Editor-in-Chief Elisabeth Rosenthal explains that the same cardiomyopathy Fentress got can also be a complication of COVID-19.

Fentress’ story is the latest in the ongoing crowdsourced Bill of the Month investigation, a collaboration with KHN, NPR and “CBS This Morning.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Veteran’s Appendectomy Launches Excruciating Months-Long Battle Over Bill

In late August 2019, Shannon Harness awoke to serious pain in the lower right side of his abdomen — a telltale sign of appendicitis.

He booked it to the emergency room of the only hospital in the county: Heart of the Rockies Regional Medical Center in Salida, Colorado. After a CT scan, doctors told Harness he had acute appendicitis and required immediate surgery.

A surgeon performed an appendectomy that night and released Harness the next day.

But a couple of days later, Harness felt sharp pains where his appendix had been. The pain grew until he was on the floor screaming.

“It was disturbing,” said Eliza Novick-Smith, his partner. “He has a pretty high pain tolerance,” given previous injuries from military service and mountain biking.

Harness went back to the hospital, where another CT scan revealed a blood clot the size of a brick floating in his pelvic area, a rare complication that most likely came from clipping and stapling the appendix tissue in the first surgery, said his surgeon. He would need another operation to check for the source of bleeding and to remove the clot.

After four more days in the hospital, he went home. It took him a couple of months to fully recover.

Then the bill came.

Patient: Shannon Harness, 39, an operations manager for a company that builds mountain bike trails across the country and a Marine Corps veteran. At the time of this incident, Harness had no insurance.

Total Owed: The original hospital bill was $80,232 for both surgeries — the first surgery cost $35,906 and the clot surgery cost $44,326. These amounts do not include payments to the surgeon, anesthesiologist, pathologist or radiologist.

Service Provider: Heart of the Rockies Regional Medical Center, a nonprofit critical access hospital in Colorado, where the surgeries were performed. Anesthesia, radiology and pathology were performed by other providers.

Medical Services: Laparoscopic appendectomy, followed by a second surgery a few days later, to resolve complications.

What Gives: Uninsured patients are extremely vulnerable to exorbitant hospital bills. It’s difficult to negotiate with a hospital without the leverage and bargaining power of an insurance company. Worse, uninsured patients are often billed three or four times what an insurer or government program would pay for the same service, said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, an organization advocating for affordable health care in California.

“As somebody who’s uninsured, you are getting an unnegotiated rate,” Wright said, derived from the hospital’s master price list. Insurers typically pay a rate that is a tiny fraction of that cost.

Harness was uninsured for seven years before this incident. His employer didn’t offer insurance, and the Affordable Care Act plan he qualified for cost $350 a month — an amount he didn’t have.

One option for uninsured patients is a hospital’s financial assistance program, a requirement in some states. In Colorado, every hospital is supposed to have a comprehensive charity care program for uninsured patients who earn less than 250% of the federal poverty level.

Heart of the Rockies hospital determines financial assistance on a sliding scale of family size and income. They also offer a self-pay discount of 15% to uninsured patients. Harness said the hospital’s financial services office initially told him he was ineligible for their assistance program as well as the Colorado Indigent Care Program. Harness had worked overtime the previous month and missed the qualification by around $200. The hospital would use only his past two pay stubs to verify his income, he said.

The hospital wouldn’t answer any questions about Harness’ care or bills, even though he gave it permission to do so.

Another quirk of the U.S. health care system that Harness encountered is that when surgeries don’t go as planned, and need revision with another operation, the patient (or his insurer) typically pays again. Medicare and some insurers have experimented with “bundled payments,” through which the hospital gets a set fee for the surgery and any follow-up care for 90 days thereafter.

Resolution: Harness filed a grievance with the hospital with the help of Novick-Smith, who is a lawyer, to push back on the bills for the two surgeries — $35,906 for the first and $44,326 more for the second —and express concerns with the quality of care.

Healthcare Bluebook, which estimates costs based on insurers’ claims data, says a fair price for an appendectomy in Salida is around $12,600. Dr. Gina Adrales, director of minimally invasive surgery at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, said the complication Harness experienced is not common. The complication rate for an appendectomy is fairly low, she said.

In November, the hospital decided to give Harness a 30% discount for both surgeries, leaving him with a still hefty bill of $56,162.40.

The couple followed up repeatedly with the hospital for months, often finding representatives “hard to reach.” More than six months later, in March, the hospital told Harness he would have to pay for the second surgery because it was a risk he accepted by agreeing to the appendectomy.

Adam Fox, director of strategic engagement at Colorado Consumer Health Initiative, said it’s “especially important” to push back on bills resulting from surgical complications. “It usually indicates that something didn’t go right in the first surgery and at least that second surgery should be provided at a substantially reduced cost to the individual,” he said.

By May, the hospital gave in. Lesley Fagerberg, Heart of the Rockies’ vice president of financial services, wrote a response to Harness’ grievance, reducing the total bill by roughly the amount charged for the second surgery. But she didn’t explain how the hospital had come to that decision.

“Unfortunately, there was a complication in your appendectomy surgery,” Fagerberg wrote. “As explained in the consent to treat, a surgery/procedure has inherent risk. Your case has been reviewed and the total bill has been reduced by $31,218.60.”

Harness’ final bill from the hospital, Fagerberg wrote, stands at $22,304.17 after adjustments that included a self-pay discount.

Harness and Novick-Smith said that still seemed too high to them, and after some research, offered to pay the hospital $12,000 upfront. The hospital rejected this offer.

Now, Harness is working out a payment plan with the hospital. The hospital offers an interest-free payment plan if he can pay it off in two years, but for Harness, those monthly payments would be more than his rent.

“I would not be able to do it by myself, like, I wouldn’t have another choice other than taking out a loan,” Harness said. “Before the appendectomy, I was looking for property and homes to purchase, and that is pretty much completely off the table right now.”

Novick-Smith said she’s glad the hospital ultimately wrote off the bill for the second surgery. But she still feels angry with the hospital.

“What feels particularly hard is that the hospital markets itself in our community as this vital community resource and they provide a lot of jobs,” she said. “Their lack of transparency and lack of communication with us made this all a whole lot worse especially because there’s nowhere else to go.”

The Takeaway: The United States health care system is not forgiving to the uninsured, who, paradoxically, often face the highest bills of all patients. The benefit of having insurance is in part that your plan pays much of the bill, but also that you get the benefit of being charged the plan’s highly discounted rates. If your employer doesn’t provide health insurance, check whether you’re eligible for a public program, said Wright.

Harness now has VA Health Care. He initially avoided looking into VA Health Care because he felt “other vets needed it more.”

If you’re uninsured and stuck with a huge bill, Fox said, the first step is to ask for an itemized bill to ensure it reflects the actual service you received. The next step is to check the hospital’s charity care policy. Another resource uninsured patients can turn to are organizations like the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative.

“It’s by no means a perfect solution because there’s only so much that we can do to help consumers advocate for themselves in these cases, but we do our best,” Fox said.

If all else fails, Wright said, it’s best to put pressure on the hospital before they sell the bill to a collections agency. There’s less room for negotiation once a bill goes to collections, Wright said. And if all else really fails, you could try calling the press.

Bill of the Month is a crowdsourced investigation by KHN and NPR that dissects and explains medical bills. Do you have an interesting medical bill you want to share with us? Tell us about it!

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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This story can be republished for free (details).

‘An Arm and a Leg’: How to Fight Bogus Medical Bills Like a Bulldog

Can’t see the audio player? Click here to listen.

After Izzy Benasso had knee surgery, she and her dad received a letter from a surgical assistant giving notice that he “had been present” at the procedure.

The surgical assistant was out-of-network and seemed to be laying the groundwork to get the Benassos to pay his fee.

Steve Benasso wrote a letter right back, basically telling the guy to buzz off: He had no intention of paying the surgical assistant. Because the bill was a surprise, Benasso suggested that the surgical assistant try to get the money from the insurance company, or negotiate for some part of the knee surgeon’s payment.

Benasso first shared his story with KHN and NPR for the Bill of the Month series.

There are two explanations for Benasso’s chutzpah.

One: “Steve is the kind of person to check every receipt twice and argue over any discrepancies he finds,” his daughter said.

Two: He had lots of experience haggling over medical bills in particular. As a human resources director, he specializes in defending his colleagues against bogus bills and unfair insurance denials.

“I am a bulldog on this stuff,” he said. “I do it every month.”

In this episode, learn how Steve became such a bulldog, and the tips he has for the rest of us.

“An Arm and a Leg” is a co-production of KHN and Public Road Productions.

To keep in touch with “An Arm and a Leg,” subscribe to the newsletter. You can also follow the show on Facebook and Twitter. And if you’ve got stories to tell about the health care system, the producers would love to hear from you.

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Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Watch: When a Surprise Helper During Surgery Is Out-of-Network

Gayle King of “CBS This Morning” spoke with KHN Editor-in-Chief Elisabeth Rosenthal about the latest installment of KHN-NPR’s Bill of the Month. College student Izzy Benasso underwent surgery for a torn meniscus after a tennis injury last summer and was surprised to be contacted afterward by a surgical assistant, who said he would be billing her insurance more than a thousand dollars.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

Ever Heard of a Surgical Assistant? Meet a New Boost to Your Medical Bills

Izzy Benasso was playing a casual game of tennis with her father on a summer Saturday when she felt her knee pop. She had torn a meniscus, one of the friction-reducing pads in the knee, locking it in place at a 45-degree angle.

Although she suspected she had torn something, the 21-year-old senior at the University of Colorado in Boulder had to endure an anxious weekend in July 2019 until she could get an MRI that Monday.

“It was kind of emotional for her,” said her father, Steve Benasso. “Just sitting there thinking about all the things she wasn’t going to be able to do.”

At the UCHealth Steadman Hawkins Clinic Denver, the MRI confirmed the tear, and she was scheduled for surgery on Thursday. Her father, who works in human resources, told her exactly what to ask the clinic regarding her insurance coverage.

Steve had double-checked that the hospital; the surgeon, Dr. James Genuario; and Genuario’s clinic were in her Cigna health plan’s network.

“We were pretty conscious going into it,” he said.

Isabel met with Genuario’s physician assistant on Wednesday, and the following day underwent a successful meniscus repair operation.

“I had already gotten a ski pass at that point,” she said. “So that was depressing.” But she was heartened to hear that with time and rehab she would get back to her active lifestyle.

Then the letter arrived, portending of bills to come.

The Patient: Izzy Benasso, a 21-year-old college student covered by her mother’s Cigna health plan.

College student Izzy Benasso stands outside her family’s home in Englewood, Colorado, on July 14. Benasso tore a meniscus in her knee while playing tennis with her father a year ago. The charges for her subsequent outpatient knee surgery totaled $96,377.(Rachel Woolf for KHN)

The Total Bill: $96,377 for the surgery was billed by the hospital, Sky Ridge Medical Center in Lone Tree, Colorado, part of HealthONE, a division of the for-profit hospital chain HCA. It accepted a $3,216.60 payment from the insurance company, as well as $357.40 from the Benassos, as payment in full. The surgical assistant billed separately for $1,167.

Service Provider: Eric Griffith, a surgical assistant who works as an independent contractor.

Medical Service: Outpatient arthroscopic meniscus repair surgery.

What Gives: The Benassos had stumbled into a growing trend in health care: third-party surgical assistants who aren’t part of a hospital staff or a surgeon’s practice. They tend to stay out-of-network with health plans, either accepting what a health plan will pay them or billing the patient directly. That, in turn, is leading to many surprise bills.

Even before any other medical bills showed up, Izzy received a notice from someone whose name she didn’t recognize.

“I’m writing this letter as a courtesy to remind you of my presence during your surgery,” the letter read.

It came from Eric Griffith, a Denver-based surgical assistant. He went on to write that he had submitted a claim to her health plan requesting payment for his services, but that it was too early to know whether the plan would cover his fee. It didn’t talk dollars and cents.

Steve Benasso said he was perplexed by the letter’s meaning, adding: “We had never read or heard of anything like that before.”

Surgical assistants serve as an extra set of hands for surgeons, allowing them to concentrate on the technical aspects of the surgery. Oftentimes other surgeons or physician assistants — or, in teaching hospitals, medical residents or surgical fellows — fill that role at no extra charge. But some doctors rely on certified surgical assistants, who generally have an undergraduate science degree, complete a 12- to 24-month training program, and then pass a certification exam.

Surgeons generally decide when they need surgical assistants, although the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services maintains lists of procedures for which a surgical assistant can and cannot bill. Meniscus repair is on the list of allowed procedures.

A Sky Ridge spokesperson said that it is the responsibility of the surgeon to preauthorize the use and payment of a surgical assistant during outpatient surgery, and that HealthOne hospitals do not hire surgical assistants. Neither the assistant nor the surgeon works directly for the hospital. UC School of Medicine, the surgeon’s employer, declined requests for comment from Genuario.

Steve Benasso says he was perplexed after receiving a letter from the surgical assistant who was in the operating room during daughter Izzy Benasso’s knee surgery. The letter, from Eric Griffith, a Denver-based surgical assistant, stated it was “a courtesy to remind you of my presence” during Izzy’s surgery. “We had never read or heard of anything like that before,” Steve says.(Rachel Woolf for KHN)

Karen Ludwig, executive director of the Association of Surgical Assistants, estimates that 75% of certified surgical assistants are employed by hospitals, while the rest are independent contractors or work for surgical assistant groups.

“We’re seeing more of the third parties,” said Dr. Karan Chhabra, a surgeon and health policy researcher at the University of Michigan Medical School. “This is an emerging area of business.”

And it can be lucrative: Some of the larger surgical assistant companies are backed by private equity investment. Private equity firms often target segments of the health care system where patients have little choice in who provides their care. Indeed, under anesthesia for surgery, patients are often unaware the assistants are in the operating room. The private equity business models include keeping such helpers out-of-network so they can bill patients for larger amounts than they could negotiate from insurance companies.

Surgical assistants counter that many insurance plans are unwilling to contract with them.

“They’re not interested,” said Luis Aragon, a Chicago-area surgical assistant and managing director of American Surgical Professionals, a private equity-backed group in Houston.

Chhabra and his colleagues at the University of Michigan recently found that 1 in 5 privately insured patients undergoing surgery by in-network doctors at in-network facilities still receive a surprise out-of-network bill. Of those, 37% are from surgical assistants, tied with anesthesiologists as the most frequent offenders. The researchers found 13% of arthroscopic meniscal repairs resulted in surprise bills, at an average of $1,591 per bill.

Colorado has surprise billing protections for consumers like the Benassos who have state-regulated health plans. But state protections don’t apply to the 61% of American workers who have self-funded employer plans. Colorado Consumer Health Initiative, which helps consumers dispute surprise bills, has seen a lot of cases involving surgical assistants, said Adam Fox, director of strategic engagement.

Izzy Benasso shows her scar from the surgery she had to repair a torn meniscus.(Rachel Woolf for KHN)

Resolution: Initially, the Benassos ignored the missive. Izzy didn’t recall meeting Griffith or being told a surgical assistant would be involved in her case.

But a month and a half later, when Steve logged on to check his daughter’s explanation of benefits, he saw that Griffith had billed the plan for $1,167. Cigna had not paid any of it.

Realizing then that the assistant was likely out-of-network, Steve sent him a letter saying “we had no intention of paying.”

Griffith declined to comment on the specifics of the Benasso case but said he sends letters to every patient so no one is surprised when he submits a claim.

“With all the different people talking to you in pre-op, and the stress of surgery, even if we do meet, they may forget who I was or that I was even there,” he said. “So the intention of the letter is just to say, ‘Hey, I was part of your surgery.’”

After KHN inquired, Cigna officials reviewed the case and Genuario’s operative report, determined that the services of an assistant surgeon were appropriate for the procedure and approved Griffith’s claim. Because Griffith was an out-of-network provider, Cigna applied his fee to Benasso’s $2,000 outpatient deductible. The Benassos have not received a bill for that fee.

Griffith says insurers often require more information before determining whether to pay for a surgical assistant’s services. If the plan pays anything, he accepts that as payment in full. If the plan pays nothing, Griffith usually bills the patient.

The Takeaway: As hospitals across the country restart elective surgeries, patients should be aware of this common pitfall.

Chhabra said he’s hearing more anecdotal reports about insurance plans simply not paying for surgical assistants, which leaves the patient stuck with the bill.

Chhabra said patients should ask their surgeons before surgery whether an assistant will be involved and whether that assistant is in-network.

“There are definitely situations where you need another set of hands to make sure the patient gets the best care possible,” he said. But “having a third party that is intentionally out-of-network or having a colleague who’s a surgeon who’s out-of-network, those are the situations that don’t really make a lot of financial or ethical sense.”

Bill of the Month is a crowdsourced investigation by KHN and NPR that dissects and explains medical bills. Do you have an interesting medical bill you want to share with us? Tell us about it!

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.