Thursday, February 6, 2014

"Balance Billing" from In-Network Hospitals Leaves Patients Shocked

In emergent situations paperwork is often the last thing on a patient's mind. Patients that have the wherewithal to remember to choose an in-network hospital to avoid large bills for treatment assume that they may be treated by any physician in the hospital and their insurance will cover the treatment. Unfortunately, many find out this is not true several weeks later with the arrival of a hefty "balance bill."

Balance billing is a common practice that bills the patient for the remainder of the cost of treatment that the insurance refused to pay because the treating physician was not out-of-network, even though she practices at a hospital that was in-network.

These unexpected bills can have huge consequences on patients and their families. NBC 5, in Texas, recently ran a story about Melinda Allen, a patient at the Texas Harris Methodist Hospital emergency room. Allen woke up on a Saturday with intense abdominal pain. She had her husband take her a hospital she knew was in-network. Several tests later Allen was diagnosed with an ovarian tumor large enough to require surgery.

The billing was less straightforward than her treatment plan. Allen paid nearly $5,000 out-of-pocket for her treatment, in addition to her $1,500 monthly premium. Allen assumed her insurance would cover the rest since she was treated at an in-network hospital. Allen was shocked when she later received a bill for nearly $700. 

The amount of the bill Allen received  was the balance left over from the price of the treatment charged by the emergency room doctor and the price her insurance company felt was appropriate. 

This practice leaves the patient to sort out the claim with their insurance company. "People are really vulnerable when they go into an emergency room," Stacey Pogue of the Center for Public Policy Priorities explained. "It's unfortunate, again, that we're put in that position because insurance companies and doctors can't decide what is appropriate reimbursement."

In situations like Allen's where does the blame fall? Allen chose an in-network hospital. Physicians, by law, are not allowed to ask about insurance and must treat all patients regardless of their ability to pay. Should the in-take process include a list of in-network and out-of-network physicians? 

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