How Not To Get “Hurt” Giving Birth: Medical Billing Tips for Parents

The Cost of Giving Birth: What Expecting Parents Should Know About Medical Billing

Giving birth in America comes with a lot of costs so disclosed and some not. It is possible to manage the cost of childbirth through informed, careful decision-making. The key is to plan ahead. The below article includes quotes by Medical Cost Advocate and appeared on Fatherly.com on August 16, 2019

By Adam Bulger – Fatherly.com

Giving birth

Moments after my daughter’s birth, I basically had to negotiate the cost of a timeshare.

My first job as a new dad was choosing a recovery room at a Manhattan hospital known for luxury accommodations. It was the dead of night. I was exhausted and unsure about our insurance coverage, so I opted for a lower-tier option. Months later, our insurance covered the room but, because of a billing error that took months to resolve, didn’t cover basic care.
Sorting out the cost of birth was confusing and stressful. But compared to other parents, my family had it pretty easy. Giving birth in America is an expensive, confusing process where parents often feel like they have no choices or negotiating power. But medical billing experts and maternity care advocates say it’s possible to manage the cost of childbirth through informed, careful decision-making.

In a 2013 national study of inpatient care costs, pregnancy and childbirth hospitalizations accounted for five of the 20 most expensive conditions for hospital stays covered by Medicaid and three of the 20 most expensive conditions for hospital stays covered by private insurance. The mean hospital stay expense is $18,000. All told, a standard birth could run you roughly $30,000. If a C-Section is required? It’s considerably more. But despite the price tag, births aren’t big money-makers for hospitals. Sean P. Lillis, founder and CEO of New York City–based medical billing services firm Billing Geeks, notes that the high cost of birth for parents doesn’t translate into enormous profits for hospitals.

Per Lillis, hospitals don’t make money off of obstetrics. Hospitals have to devote considerable time, resources, and staff for labor. Despite the overhead, private insurance pays hospitals according to fee-for-service schedules, meaning insurance pays more to hospitals for some types of patients, like the ones undergoing short stay surgical procedures requiring a battery of tests and procedures, than others, like the ones giving birth. “They can’t make their maximum reimbursement charge rate,” he says.

While the real action of having a kid happens in the delivery room, that’s not what you pay for. Most labor costs happen later, during the mom’s short hospital stay following birth.
“Four out of five of all dollars paid on behalf of the mother and the baby across that full episode from pregnancy through the postpartum and newborn period go into that relatively brief hospital window,” says Carol Sakala, Director of Childbirth Connection Programs at the National Partnership for Women & Families.

Some of the hospital costs, like medical tests for the baby and mother, can’t be avoided. Others you might be able to work around. Some hospitals reportedly impose fees for using their TVs; others can charge as much as $20 for an Ibuprofen. Packing an iPad and a bottle of Advil in your go-bag can defray some of those gotchas. But, honestly, saying no to these add-ons is chump change compared to what you can save by doing a little homework ahead of time.

How to Avoid the High Costs of Child Birth
Maria Montecillo, a healthcare insurance and billing advocate for the New Jersey medical billing advocacy firm Medical Cost Advocate, says parents should get in the weeds of their health plan as soon as they know they’re expecting. Knowing what health care providers are in your network makes a huge cost difference. And if your network’s too small, you may be lucky enough to be able to expand it. While it isn’t easy to time a pregnancy, the months leading up to your company’s health care enrollment period are an ideal time to make informed coverage changes.

“If you know you’re going to be pregnant this year, think about changing your insurance coverage,” Montecillo says. “You’ll pay a higher premium now but it’ll work out later.”
And when you’re getting close to the due date, taking your time can save a lot of money. Hospitals often try to slot births into a timetable that benefits the institution but may harm its patients, as there’s evidence early admission correlates with higher rates of labor induction and C-section births.
“The system is, for its convenience, pushing women into giving birth at weekday, daytime, non-holiday hours,” Sakala says. “A vast number of labor inductions, which add costs, could be avoided, a vast number of Caesarians, which add costs, could be avoided.”

Delayed admission to labor, where the mother doesn’t enter the delivery until they’re in active labor, is a simple way to reduce the cost of birth. Under delayed admission, the mother, ideally with the guidance of a midwife, doula, or other birthing professional, monitors the frequency and intensity of her contractions.

If the expectant mother has a hearty constitution or advanced skills in pain management, forgoing an epidural can avoid billing surprises.
“One of the places where people are getting into trouble with out-of-network providers is with the anesthesiologist,” Sakala says. “You didn’t choose that person, and the person who’s on call at that time could very well be out-of-network and those charges could be sky-high.”

It might be possible to skip the hospital — and its price tag — altogether. Sakala is a big proponent of birth centers, non-hospital labor facilities that offer natural births, without epidurals, inductions, or Caesarians or the high costs associated with those procedures. “They’re avoiding many things that are avoidable and pulling in beneficial practices that might be kind of low-tech, like being up and about, as opposed to staying in bed,” she says. “Or being in a tub or being in a shower. Those kinds of things can make a huge difference.”

The first month after the birth, parents have a small window of opportunity to shuffle around their insurance coverage. If the mother and father have separate insurance coverages, a baby’s birth is automatically billed under the mother’s insurance. They have 30 days to add the newborn to either the mother or father’s policy. Tracking the vagaries of insurance coverage can easily slip down the priorities list when you’re dealing with a newborn but ignoring it can court disaster.
“I once had a case where the parents ‘forgot’ to add the baby into their insurance plan, and they had to wait until open enrollment for the baby to be added,” Montecillo says. “As luck would have it, the baby developed complications and needed surgery. The insurance company stuck to their guns and refused coverage for the baby, as this was clearly stated on the policy and the parents were hit with a huge medical bill.”

When your insurance company’s bill for the birth arrives, don’t rush out to the post office with a check. Take your time and scrutinize the charges. Insurance coverage is complicated, even for insurance professionals. Mistakes happen. An insurer may have calculated a payment on the basis of an incorrect fee schedule for your plan or charged you for something that wasn’t performed.
“Look over the bill carefully,” Montecillo says. “It’s just like at a restaurant. You want to see that if you ordered chicken nuggets that they charged you for chicken nuggets.”

Spotting a costly error can be infuriating. Nonetheless, overt hostility is the wrong approach to the discovery. Montecillo says that everything is negotiable — she chiseled down a $60,000 triplet birth to a $1,300 final bill, for example — but only when the person on the phone wants to negotiate. And that means being not just polite but persuasive. “Start with sweetness but if you’re not getting anywhere, ask to talk to a manager,” she says.

And Montecillo speaks from experience. Before working on behalf of consumers, she spent 14 years as billing manager for a large private medical practice.
“I was on the other end of those calls and I know that I can make changes,” she says. “But if you’re nasty or you’re saying mean things about the doctor, I can say no.”

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New Proposal Aims to Address Rising Out-of-pocket Health Care Costs: Prospect for Bipartisanship?

Republicans and Democrats have an opportunity to work together to come up with reforms to address the high cost of health care. A draft discussion was recently released addressing surprise billing and the rising cost of prescription drugs, two of the most common problems for patients. We are hoping that this draft bill will be passed soon to help reduce out-of-pocket health care costs for everyone.

New Proposal Aims to Address Rising Out-of-pocket Health Care Costs: Prospect for Bipartisanship?

by Kara Jones

 

Blog photo 061219

Republicans and Democrats have an opportunity to work together to come up with reforms to address the high cost of health care. There are some areas of agreement on this issue. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, led by Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) released a draft discussion of nearly three dozen specific proposals to reduce out-of-pocket health care costs and increase health care price transparency.

The five main parts of the draft bill, the Lower Health Care Costs Act of 2019, include:

1. Tackle surprise medical billing: The bill would make sure that patients are not held responsible for surprise medical bills received when they see an out-of-network doctor that they didn’t choose. The bill lists three different approaches that health care providers and insurance companies could take to resolve payment for these surprise bills.

2. Lower the price of prescription drugs: The bill would ensure that pharmaceutical companies don’t game the system to prevent new and lower-cost generic drugs from coming to market. It would also help generic drug and biosimilar companies to speed drug development and avoid patent infringement by providing a searchable patent database. These actions would get lifesaving drugs into the hands of patients more quickly.

3. Increase transparency in the health care market: The bill would set up a non-profit entity to create an all-payer claims database, which would house anonymous patient health care data that patients, states, and employers could use to better understand their health care costs. The bill would also ban certain anti-competitive hospital contracts, such as those that prevent insurers from sharing pricing information with patients.

4. Improve public health: The bill would authorize grants to address important public health issues such as increasing vaccination rates and reducing maternal mortality. It would also give states an evidence-based guide to develop programs to prevent obesity and other chronic health conditions.

5. Enhance health information technology: The bill would give patients full, electronic access to their own health care claims information and would incentivize health care systems to keep patients’ personal health information private and secure.

Health care reform is a polarizing issue between Republicans and Democrats, and with current gridlock in Congress, it is not possible for either party to pass its own comprehensive reform. However, rising health care costs continually rank in the top three issues that voters are most concerned about. This presents an opportunity for the two parties to come together and compromise on ways to reduce health care costs for all Americans.

Two areas where we are most likely to see movement in Congress are on surprise billing and prescription drug costs. Large surprise medical bills have become a growing problem for patients who unknowingly visit health care providers that are out-of-network. And as insurance deductibles continue to rise year after year, patients are feeling high prescription drug costs more acutely.

There have been numerous bills introduced to address these two issues, and both Republicans and Democrats agree that patients need relief. The Lower Health Care Costs Act of 2019 would directly address these issues, as well as the others listed above, in its aim to reduce out-of-pocket health care costs.

The Senate HELP committee is requesting input on the draft to be submitted to LowerHealthCareCosts@help.senate.gov.The committee plans to hold hearings on the legislation by the end of June and put the bill to a vote later this summer.

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Medical Cost Advocate was featured in a documentary by a French journalist

A French journalist from CAPA TV (the equivalent of 60 Minutes in the US) came to our office and interviewed our CEO Derek Fitteron regarding our advocacy services. The interview was also about our client Stella who is featured on the previous blog. Watch how Stella was very stressed over the thousands of dollars in medical bills that she received when her triplets were born prematurely, and how her Advocate helped her in resolving these bills.

To watch it subtitled in English, go to settings➡️subtitles➡️auto translate➡️English.

You will see Stella, Stella’s advocate Maria, and Derek beginning at the 7:20 mark.

 

 

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Why does it cost $32,093 just to give birth in America?

Our company receives many inquiries like this. Stella had approached us last April, emotionally distraught over the thousands of dollars in medical bills she was receiving related to the premature birth of her triplets. One of our expert medical billing advocates was assigned to take her case. She was very happy with the favorable outcome (a reduction in her final balance by an incredible amount), and so were we. Like Stella, we may be able to help you too. 

The US is the most expensive nation in the world in which to have a baby – and it may factor into thousands of bankruptcies each year.

Tue 16 Jan 2018

Jessica Glenza in New York – The Guardian

Stella Apo

Stella Apo Osae-Twum and her husband did everything by the book. They went to a hospital covered by insurance, saw an obstetrician in their plan, but when her three sons – triplets – were born prematurely, bills started rolling in.

The hospital charged her family $877,000 in total.

“When the bills started coming, to be very honest, I was an emotional wreck,” said Apo Osae-Twum. “And this is in the midst of trying to take care of three babies who were premature.”

America is the most expensive nation in the world to give birth. When things go wrong – – from preeclampsia to premature birth – costs can quickly spiral into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. While the data is limited, experts in medical debt say the costs of childbirth factor into thousands of family bankruptcies in America each year.

It’s nearly impossible to put a price tag on giving birth in America, since costs vary dramatically by state and hospital. But one 2013 study by the advocacy group Childbirth Connection found that, on average, hospitals charged $32,093 for an uncomplicated vaginal birth and newborn care, and $51,125 for a standard caesarean section and newborn care. Insurance typically covers a large chunk of those costs, but families are still often on the hook for thousands of dollars.

Another estimate from the International Federation of Health Plans put average charges for vaginal birth in the US at $10,808 in 2015, but that estimate excludes newborn care and other related medical services. That is quintuple the IFHP estimate for another industrialized nation, Spain, where it costs $1,950 to deliver a child, and the cost is covered by the government.

Even the luxurious accommodations provided to the Duchess of Cambridge for the birth of the royal family’s daughter Princess Charlotte – believed to have cost up to $18,000 – were cheaper than many average births in America.

Despite these high costs, the US consistently ranks poorly in health outcomes for mothers and infants. The US rate of infant mortality is 6.1 for every 1,000 live births, higher than Slovakia and Hungary, and nearly three times the rate of Japan and Finland. The US also has the worst rate of maternal mortality in the developed world. That means America is simultaneously the most expensive and one of the riskiest industrialized nations in which to have children.

American families rarely shoulder the full costs of childbirth on their own – but still pay far more than in other industrialized nations. Nearly half of American mothers are covered by Medicaid, a program available to low income households that covers nearly all birth costs. But people with private insurance still regularly pay thousands of dollars in co-pays, deductibles and partially reimbursed services when they give birth. Childbirth Connection put the average out of pocket childbirth costs for mothers with insurance at $3,400 in 2013.

In Apo Osae-Twum’s case, private insurance covered most of the $877,000 bill, but her family was responsible for $51,000.

Apo Osae-Twum was the victim of what is called “surprise billing”. In these cases, patients have no way of knowing whether an ambulance company, emergency room physician, anesthesiologist – or, in her case, a half dozen neonatologists – are members of the patient’s insurance plan.

Even though Apo Osae-Twum went to a hospital covered by her insurance, none of the neonatologists who attended to her sons were “in-network”. Therefore the insurance reimbursed far less of their bills.

There are few studies that estimate the number of families who go bankrupt from this type of unexpected expense. One of the best estimates is now outdated – conducted 10 years ago. But one of the authors of that research, Dr Steffie Woolhandler, estimates as many as 56,000 families each year still go bankrupt from adding a new family member through birth or adoption.

“Why any society should let anyone be bankrupted by medical bills is beyond me, frankly,” said Woolhandler. “It just doesn’t happen in other western democracies.”

Since Woolhandler conducted that research in 2007, 20 million Americans gained health insurance through the Affordable Care Act health reform law, and consumer protections were added for pregnant women. But Republicans and the Trump administration have pledged to repeal these consumer protections.

“People face a double whammy when they’re faced with a medical condition,” said Woolhandler. Bankruptcy is often, “the combined effect of medical bills and the need to take time off work”.

There is no nationwide law that provides paid family leave in the US, meaning most families forego income to have a child.

And although childbirth is one of the most common hospital procedures in the nation, prices are completely opaque. That means Americans don’t know how much a birth will cost in advance.

Dr Renee Hsia, an emergency department physician at the University of California San Francisco and a health policy expert likened the experience to buying a car, but not knowing whether the dealership sells Fords or Lamborghinis. “You don’t know, are you going to have a complication that is a lot more expensive? And is it going to be financially ruinous?”

According to Hsia’s 2013 study, a “California woman could be charged as little as $3,296 or as much as $37,227 for a vaginal delivery, and $8,312 to $70,908 for a caesarean section, depending on which hospital she was admitted to.”

Apo Osae-Twum and her family only found relief after a professional medical billing advocate agreed to take their case. Medical Cost Advocate in New Jersey, where Derek Fitteron is CEO, negotiated with doctors to lower the charges to $1,300.

“This is why people are scared to go to the doctor, why they go bankrupt, and why they forego other things to get care from their kids,” said Hsia. “I find it heartbreaking when patients say… ‘How much does this cost?’

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jan/16/why-does-it-cost-32093-just-to-give-birth-in-america?CMP=fb_gu

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This Could Be the Obamacare Outcome we’ve All Been Waiting For

This often-overlooked long-term goal of Obamacare may be finding the mark according to this latest study from the American Cancer Society.

The third open enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act, best known as Obamacare, has been ongoing for roughly five weeks now. And as seems to be the trend around this time of year, more questions than answers appear to be swirling around healthcare’s law of the land.

Big changes lead to an uncertain future

Obamacare is facing a number of changes in the 2016 calendar year, and, frankly, no one is certain yet how those changes might affect enrollment or patient mix for insurers.

For example, insurance premiums are rising at about their fastest rate in about a decade. The Great Recession held premium rate inflation in check for years, but the failure of more than half of Obamacare’s health cooperatives, coupled with many low-cost insurers coming to the realization that their rates were unsustainably low, are leading to big premium hikes in the upcoming year.

Data from the Washington Examiner showed that 231 insurers requested double-digit percentage premium price hikes in 2016 compared to just 121 in 2015. Furthermore, the magnitude of these hikes — 61 plans are looking for a minimum premium increase of 30% this year — is much higher than 2015. In short, there’s concern that higher premiums could reduce the affordability of the program for those who don’t qualify for a subsidy, leading to a higher uninsured rate.

Meanwhile, the employer mandate will be fully implemented on Jan. 1, 2016. The employer mandate will require that businesses with 50 or more full-time-equivalent employees (FTE’s) offer eligible health coverage to those FTE’s and their dependents under the age of 26, as well as provide financial assistance in instances where low-income FTE’s would be paying more than 9.5% of their modified adjusted gross income out of pocket toward their premium. If qualifying businesses fail to follow the rules, they could be looking at a $2,000 to $3,000 fine per employee.
The big question here is how businesses will respond. Will bigger companies step up and supply health insurance for their workers or will we see layoffs, hour cutbacks, or a move to private health exchanges? Obamacare’s big changes in 2016 are leading to a seemingly uncertain enrollment outlook in the near term.

Obamacare’s incredibly important goal that you probably overlooked

The easiest way to measure the success of Obamacare has always been by its overall enrollment totals. Obamacare was first and foremost designed to reduce the number of uninsured and to utilize the individual mandate and employer mandate to make that happen. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in Q1 2015 that just 9.2% of U.S. adults remained uninsured, including Medicare patients, which is the lowest figure on record. By this token, Obamacare would appear to be hitting its primary goal.

But there’s an even more important long-term goal that’s often lost on critics when discussing Obamacare’s success or failure — namely, the impact that preventative (and earlier) medical access could have on reducing long-term medical costs.
For insurers, Obamacare is a bit of a give and take. Insurers are enrolling more people than ever, and they’re also being required to accept members with pre-existing conditions. The result is that some insurers, such as the nation’s largest, UnitedHealth Group, are dealing with adverse selection and losing money on their individual marketplace plans because they’ve enrolled a large number of sicker individuals. Even though some of its large peers such asAnthem are healthfully profitable, the margins most insurers are generating on Obamacare plans (if they’re even profitable in the first place) are relatively small.

Now here’s the catch: In exchange for spending more money on their members up front, it’s possible that chronic and serious diseases that are the primary expense culprit for insurance companies can be caught before they become a serious issue. Thus, while health benefit providers may be spending more now than they would like to, their long-term outlook is also looking brighter presuming the current generation of members is now going to be healthier than the last generation given expanded access to medical care.

This could be the outcome we’ve been waiting for.

This last point sounds great on paper, but it’s difficult to prove that Obamacare is really making a dent in lowering long-term healthcare costs, especially since it’s only been the law of the land for about two years. All that consumers and critics can focus on at the moment are the rapidly rising premium prices.

However, a new study from the American Cancer society that was published online in the Journal of the American Medical Association late last month appears to show that there is a correlation between Obamacare’s expansion and a higher rate of cervical cancer diagnoses in select patients.

Researchers from the Department of Epidemiology at Emory University and from the ACS’ Department of Intramural Research analyzed a large database of cancer cases within the United States, separating cervical cancer diagnoses for women ages 21 to 25 in one group from cervical cancer diagnoses in women ages 26 to 34 in the other cohort. The reasoning behind this split? Persons under the age of 26 are still eligible to be covered under their parents’ health plan under Obamacare, and thus the expansion of this dependent clause should give researchers a reasonable correlation of how well Obamacare is affecting the rate of cervical cancer diagnoses.

After examining cervical cancer diagnosis rates for both cohorts before and after the implementation of Obamacare, researchers noted that there was a substantial increase in the number of cervical cancer diagnoses for women ages 21 to 25, whereas the age 26-34 cohort had a relatively consistent number of diagnoses before and after Obamacare’s implementation.

On the surface, a rising rate of cervical cancer diagnoses may not sound good at all. But, in a different context it could be just the news we’ve been hoping for. The key to beating cervical cancer is discovering it early, and presumably being able to stay on their parents’ health plans until age 26 helped the 21- to 25-year-old cohort gain this vital medical access. It’s possible that this early diagnoses not only saved lives, but for insurers that it kept them from shelling out big bucks in mid- to late-stage cancer treatments.

Keep in mind that this is just one example, and one example does not make a trend. However, it’s long been postulated that reducing the barriers to health insurance would lead to a higher medical utilization rate for consumers and a better chance of discovering potentially serious and chronic conditions at an earlier time, thus saving the patients’ lives and cutting insurers’ long-term medical expenses. It’s possible we could be witnessing the first signs of that.

Understandably, we’ll want to see additional studies emerge that examine disease diagnosis and treatment rates in a pre- and post-Obamacare setting so we can make a conclusive ruling as to whether or not Obamacare could actually lower long-term healthcare costs and improve long-term patient survival rates. The initial signs, though, are very encouraging.

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Finding Help for the High Costs of Cancer Care

This article from the Philadelphia Enquirer contains valuable information about the high cost of cancer care and the options people have in managing those costs.

The good news is more Americans are surviving cancer.

The bad news? We pay big bucks to stay free and clear of the disease.

Nearly 14.5 million American cancer survivors remain alive and well as of Jan. 1, 2014, according to the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By 2024, cancer survivors will number 19 million people.

So how much does it cost to stay cancer-free? Quite a lot, says Zhiyuan Zheng, Ph.D. and senior health services researcher with the American Cancer Society in Atlanta.

For American men, the three most prevalent types of cancer among survivors are prostate (43 percent), colorectal (9 percent), and melanoma (8 percent). Breast (41 percent), uterine (8 percent), and colon and rectum (8 percent) are most common among women who survive cancer.

Prostate, colorectal, and breast cancers account for about 30 percent of all cancer-related health-care costs. The survivors incur higher medical expenses, are at higher risk of secondary cancer, and require more tests and follow-up care.

Total cancer treatment costs in 2004 were $72 billion, about $120 billion in 2014, and will increase to $180 billion by 2024, Zheng adds.

How does that break down per person? In the first 12 months, breast cancer treatment costs roughly $20,000, colorectal cancer $30,000, and prostate $10,000.

Lost workdays add to the total annual economic burden per cancer survivor: $20,238 for colorectal, $14,202 for breast, and $9,278 for prostate, for those under age 64, the researchers found.

Fortunately, cancer patients can now turn to medical bill negotiators who bargain with medical providers.

“We have a number of cancer patients who’ve hired us. Plus we’re also seeing a higher success rate” among cancer patients, says Derek Fitteron, founder and CEO of Medical Cost Advocate in Wyckoff, N.J.

One customer was a family facing $125,000 in bills incurred in a year for treatment of a rare childhood cancer.

“We reviewed the bills for billing accuracy and found comparable pricing negotiating savings of more than $85,000 with several Pennsylvania facilities,” Fitteron said.

Resources Cancer maintains a list of organizations that help patients financially

The Cancer Financial Assistance Coalition is a group of national organizations that provide financial help.

The nonprofit CancerCare provides limited financial assistance to people affected by cancer. It also has a foundation to help fund copays, the CancerCare Patient Assistance Foundation

The HealthWell Foundation similarly provides financial assistance to cover copayments, premiums, and deductibles for certain medications and therapies.

Partnership for Prescription Assistance helps qualifying patients who lack prescription-drug coverage obtain the medications they need.

Needy Meds offers information on companies assisting those who can’t afford medication.

The Patient Access Network Foundation assists patients with out-of-pocket costs associated with their treatment.

Patient Services Inc. assists with insurance premiums and copayments for people with chronic diseases.

RxHope.com helps patients obtain free or low-cost prescription medications.

The Assist Fund provides financial support to chronically ill patients with high-cost medications.

The Patient Advocate Foundation provides education, legal counseling, and referrals for people with cancer who need assistance managing insurance, financial, debt crisis, and job-discrimination issues.

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The Hospital-Dependent Patient

By PAULINE W. CHEN, M.D.

Interesting piece about the unintended cost and consequences of hospital re-admissions.  Spectacular advances in medical science have led to a growing population of patients who are “hospital-dependent” adding great cost to the healthcare system.

“He’s back?” my colleague asked, eyes widening as she passed the patient’s room. “He’s in the hospital again?”
Slender, pale and in his late 60s, the man had first been admitted nearly a year earlier with pressure in his chest so severe he had trouble breathing. When his heart stopped, doctors and nurses revived him by injecting the latest life-saving medicines into his veins and applying the newest electrical defibrillator paddles to his chest.

Within minutes, the cardiology team arrived, but when the blockage in the arteries of his heart proved too extensive for even their state-of-the-art techniques and equipment, they handed him off to the waiting surgeons. The surgeons, in turn, cooled down his heart until it stopped beating, sewed in bypass conduits with threads finer than human hairs, restarted the heart with a few well-placed jolts of electricity and then transferred the patient to the cutting-edge intensive care unit to recover.

The man survived. Sort of.

Weakened by this string of emergencies, he required a breathing machine for several days. When excess fluid in his lungs caused shortness of breath, he needed intravenous diuretics. When his heart began beating erratically, he was obliged to take a finely tuned cocktail of heart medications. And when his chest wound became infected, he had to return to the operating room.

Finally, after nearly two months in the hospital, he was discharged to a skilled nursing center. But then a urinary tract infection made him dizzy and confused, and he went right back to the hospital, beginning a cycle of discharge and re-admittance that would persist for almost a year.
To many of us who had cared for the man, it seemed as if he had spent more days in the hospital than out.

“What kind of life is that?” my colleague asked as we stood in the hallway and watched the man’s wife help him once again put on his hospital gown and pack away his street clothes. “You’ve got to wonder,” she whispered, “did we really do him a favor when we ‘saved’ him?”
I was reminded of the frail man and the many patients like him whom I have known when I read a recent Perspective piece in The New England Journal of Medicine titled “The Hospital-Dependent Patient.”

Over the last 30 years, American hospitals have become a showcase of medical progress, saving lives that not long ago would have been lost.

“Rapid response teams,” drilled in precision teamwork and the latest techniques of critical care, have become commonplace. Cardiac and respiratory monitors, once found only in intensive care units, are now standard equipment on most wards and even in many patient rooms. CAT scanners and M.R.I. machines, once rare, have become de rigueur, with some hospitals boasting duplicates and even triplicates.

But up to one-fifth of patients treated with these new medical advances and then deemed well enough to leave the hospital end up being re-admitted within 30 days of their discharge, at considerable cost. Insurers and third-party payers have begun penalizing health care systems for these quick re-admissions; and hospitals, in response, have begun significant efforts to improve the transition from hospital to home, creating clinics that remain open beyond usual working hours and marshaling teams of care coordinators, post-discharge pharmacists and “care transition coaches.”

The problem persists, though, because our spectacular advances in medical science have led to a growing population of patients who are “hospital-dependent,” according to the authors of the Perspectives article.

Hospital-dependent patients are those who, a generation ago, were doomed to die. Now they are being saved. But they are not like the so-called hot spotters, a group of patients more commonly associated with frequent re-admissions who return to the hospital because of inadequate follow-up care, failure to take prescriptions correctly or difficult socioeconomic circumstances. Instead, hospital-dependent patients come back because they are so fragile, their grasp on health so tenuous, that they easily “decompensate,” or deteriorate under stress, when not in the hospital.

Medical advances can snatch them from the clutches of death, but not necessarily free them from dependence on near-constant high-tech monitoring and treatments.

“They are like a house of cards,” said Dr. David B. Reuben, lead author of the article and chief of the division of geriatrics at the Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. “When one thing goes wrong, they collapse.”

Not surprisingly, hospital-dependent patients feel more secure and are happier in the hospital than at home. While clinicians and even family members may judge theirs a diminished existence, these patients find their quality of life acceptable, relishing their time with friends and family or engaged in passive hobbies like watching sports or reading the newspaper, albeit in the hospital.

Over time, however, their recurring presence can result in conflicted feelings among those who were responsible for saving them in the first place. Some clinicians even begin to resent their obligation to continue administering resource-intensive care. “Physicians are socialized to cure patients, then move on,” Dr. Reuben observed. “They want to treat patients, not adopt them.”

Dr. Reuben and his co-author offer potential solutions, such as specialized wards or facilities that would be more intensive than skilled nursing homes yet less costly than a hospital. But they are quick to add that more research must also be done. Their concept of “hospital-dependency” is a new one, so no research is available to help identify patients at risk of becoming hospital-dependent, estimate the percentage of early re-admissions they are responsible for or calculate the costs they incur.

Even without studies, it’s clear that the numbers of these patients are increasing. With every triumphant medical advance, there are patients who are cured but who remain too fragile to live beyond the immediate reach of the technology that saved them. Until we begin making different decisions regarding how we allocate our resources, their presence will be a constant reminder of which medical research and health care we consider worthy and which we do not.

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When Health Costs Harm Your Credit

By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL New York Times

This is an excellent article outlining the problems people can run into by allowing medical bills to go unpaid. It takes a long time to decipher what you actually owe, but providers can report you to credit agencies for late payment very quickly.  People in these types of situations have reason to worry.

LIKE most people, I am generally vigilant about paying my bills — credit cards, mortgage, cellphone and so on. But medical bills have a different trajectory. I (usually) open the envelopes and peruse the amalgam of codes and charges. I sigh or swear. And set them aside for when I have time to clarify the confusion: An out-of-network charge from a doctor I know is in-network? An un-itemized laboratory bill from a doctor I’ve never heard of? A bill for a huge charge before my insurer has paid its yet unknown portion of a hospital’s unknowable fee?

I would never countenance the phrase “60 days past due” on my Visa card statement. But medical bills? Well… with the complex negotiations that determine my ultimate payment, it often takes months to understand what I actually owe.

Unfortunately, I may be playing a dangerous game. Mounting evidence shows that chaos in medical billing is not just affecting our health care but dinging the financial reputation of many Americans: While the bills themselves frequently take months to sort out, medical debts can be reported rapidly to credit agencies, and often without notification. And even small unpaid bills can severely damage credit ratings.

A mortgage initiator in Texas, Rodney Anderson of Supreme Lending, recently looked at the credit records of 5,000 applicants and found that 40 percent had medical debt in collection, with the average around $400; even worse, most applicants were unaware of their debt. Richard Cordray, director of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has noted that half of all accounts reported by collection agencies now come from medical bills, and the credit record of one in five Americans is affected.

A single medical bill reported to a credit agency can easily become a “millstone around your neck” said Mark Rukavina, principal at Community Health Advisors, a health care advisory service. He added: “It will take a long time to make that right, even once the bill is paid. I’ve had mortgage brokers call me and say ‘I have these people with great credit. They’ve refinanced before, but now they’ve got this medical bill and even though they’ve paid it off, I can’t get them a good rate.’ ”

Part of the problem is that there are few standards governing medical debts: One billing office might give you — or your insurer — 60 days to pay before pursuing collection. Another might allow you to pay off a bill slowly over a year. Many will sell the debt to collection companies, which typically take a cut of the proceeds and decide when or whether to report unpaid debt to credit agencies.

The problem is accelerating for several reasons. Charges are rising. Insurance policies are requiring more patient outlays in the form of higher deductibles and co-payments. More important, perhaps, is that while doctors’ practices traditionally worked out deals for patients who had trouble paying, today many doctors work for large professionally managed groups and hospital systems whose bills are generated far away, by computer.

Both Congress and the protection bureau have been trying to better insulate patient credit scores from the inefficiencies of our market-based medical system. Various proposals have been considered to differentiate medical debt from other forms; it could be erased once it has been paid off or not reported to credit agencies at all, for example. So far, the credit industry has fought successfully against such efforts, noting that they could allow some genuine scofflaws to evade legitimate charges. But it’s also good business, since health care bills are now the largest source of business for collection companies, according to consumer protection agency officials.

Having spent the last year reporting a series on American health costs, I’ve heard plenty about credit casualties.

Gene Cavallo, 61, a New Mexico businessman who put his children through college, had always paid his bills promptly and had an excellent credit rating, until he required surgical excision of a melanoma on his shin two years ago. The more than 60 bills generated for the surgery and six months of follow-up visits — arriving sporadically and ranging from 18 cents to $17,000 — came to $110,000; his insurance covered about $70,000.

When various providers asked him to pay the remaining $40,000, he requested itemized bills and balked at some of the “ridiculously inflated prices,” such as $85 for tweezers and $20 for a box of tissues. He argued the bills point by point, and ultimately agreed to pay $25,000.
But during the negotiations some of the debt was sent to collection. Two years later, he no longer answers the daily robocalls from collection agencies and has had a couple of credit cards canceled because his score has fallen. “It was a scary thing to do because I own a business and dabble in real estate, so the ability to borrow has always been important to me. And now I have no ability, I assume, to borrow for any reason.”
Michael S., who declined to give his full name so as to protect his reputation with business clients, had to declare bankruptcy in Wisconsin more than five years ago after a fraught year in which his toddler was evaluated for what proved to be a benign neurological condition that required no treatment: “You’d get bills for several different doctors’ groups and for tests and M.R.I.s and you don’t know what they are. I was having trouble figuring out who we owed what. And then, if it goes to collection, then suddenly they’re saying we need this paid now.”

With medical expenses, unlike most other purchases, you generally don’t know the price the hospital will charge in advance. And the subsequent bills and insurance statements — so-called explanations of benefits — are often layered in obfuscation and pressure tactics.

Consider Chris Sullivan of Pennsylvania, whose $2,770 bill for an echocardiogram offered a “prompt payment” discount of 20 percent if he wrote a check within 21 days — meaning a discount for not asking questions on a bill for a test he was told would be under $300.

Another “explanation of benefits” statement notified Joe Cotugno of New York City that his two-day hospital stay for a hip replacement was billed at $99,469.70 (doctors’ fees not included). Cigna paid $68,420.53 after knocking off some $28,000 and requiring Mr. Cotugno to pay $3,018.41. So, it informed him, “You saved 96 percent.” Huh?

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been studying the impact of medical billing on credit scores since 2012, acknowledging that unpaid medical bills in collection “frequently end up on consumer credit reports,” as an outgrowth of “very complex and confusing systems of figuring out who owes what after a medical procedure.” Mr. Cordray, the bureau’s director, said it would take appropriate action if harmful practices were identified.

Bills in Congress that would regulate the practices have been stalled for years. The Medical Debt Relief Act was passed by the House in 2010, but never made it to a Senate vote. After a modified version of the bill failed to pass again last year, another act was recently introduced in the Senate and House.

Meanwhile, patients are right to worry. When Matt Meyer, who owns a saddle-fitting company in New Hampshire, set up a monthly payment plan after some surgery, he was distressed to notice that the invoices came from a debt collector. “I had no idea this was considered debt,” he said, and wondered: “Are they reporting that” to a credit agency?

Good question.

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Americans don’t know what’s in Obamacare, do know they don’t like it

By Sarah Kliff, Washington Post

Fifty percent of Americans now say they oppose the Affordable Care Act. This is the highest number that Kaiser Family Foundation’s poll has seen since October 2011, when Republicans were in the midst of a primary cycle and lots of anti-Obamacare rhetoric was in the air. The easiest explanation for the recent upswing in negative sentiment would be that lots of Americans tried, but failed, to buy insurance through HealthCare.gov. They ran into technical barriers that plagued the site in October and November. But Kaiser’s data don’t really bear out that thesis. There’s actually only been a tiny uptick in the number of Americans who say the health-care law has affected their lives over the past three months. A full 59 percent of Americans still report no personal experience with the law. 

Most Americans don’t know that Obamacare has, at this point, pretty much fully taken effect. When surveyed in January, after the insurance expansion began, 18 percent said they thought “all” or “most” provisions of the Affordable Care Act had been put into place.

There’s lots of confusion, too, about what policies are and aren’t part of the health-care law. Most Americans know there’s a mandate to purchase health insurance. A lot fewer are aware that the law provides financial help for low- to middle-income Americans (the tax subsidies) or gives states the option of expanding Medicaid.

For many Americans – particularly the 68 percent who get coverage through their work, Medicare and Medicaid — the launch of the exchanges probably doesn’t affect their coverage situation. They’ll continue getting insurance in 2014 just the same way they did in 2013. For them, an expansion of Medicaid or an end to the denial of coverage for people with pre-existing conditions isn’t a big change (unless, of course, they lose their current coverage).

So what’s driving the negative opinions of Obamacare? The Kaiser survey does point to one potential culprit: negative news coverage. More Americans say they’ve seen stories about people having bad experiences with the Affordable Care Act than good ones.

Politico’s David Nather had a great line on this recently, in a story about the very high bar for success stories about the Affordable Care Act.

“Here’s the challenge the White House faces in telling Obamacare success stories: Try to picture a headline that says, ‘Obamacare does what it’s supposed to do,’ ” Nather writes. “Somehow, the Obama administration and its allies will have to convince news outlets to run those kinds of stories — and to give the happy newly insured the same kind of attention as the outraged complainers whose health plans were canceled because of the law.”

We don’t have a great sense yet of what type of experience Obamacare’s new enrollees are having — whether they’re disproportionately bad or if the bad stories are just more interesting to cover. But the more negative news coverage does seem to have played some role in the recent uptick in negative opinions about the new law.

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The battle of the anecdotes: Gird yourself for Obamacare’s newest fight

By Sarah Kliff

Below is an interesting piece by Sarah Kliff on how the Affordable Care Act is changing the American health-care system — and being changed by it. At this stage, the report card for the program depends largely on who you ask.

Fliers promoting the Get Covered Illinois health insurance marketplace sit in a box at the Bureau County Health Department offices in Princeton, Illinois, U.S., on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013. Today’s deadline for Americans to sign up for Obamacare health coverage effective Jan. 1 was extended until midnight tomorrow as heavy traffic to the online enrollment system caused a queuing system to be activated.

If you want to believe Obamacare is going great, you should call up Linda Browne. She’s a 62-year-old retired accountant from California who already has an appointment to see her new primary-care doctor at Kaiser Permanente, the new health insurer she signed up with through Covered California.

“I thought I would have to wait a long time,” Browne says. “But when I called, they said she had an appointment Wednesday for a physical.”
If you’d prefer to believe Obamacare is going terribly, then Michael D. Scott has got a story for you. He’s a 36-year-old Texan who turned up at a pharmacy last week trying to fill a $700 prescription for anti-seizure medication — only to find the technicians had no record of his enrollment.
“I’m stuck,” says Scott, who takes the prescription to treat a genetic condition called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. “I’m going to have to start buying a couple days’ worth on my own if they can’t figure things out. It’s disappointing.”

Both Browne and Scott signed up for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. Browne has had the law work pretty well; Scott has spent hours on the phone with customer service representatives (actually, he spent one hour and 37 minutes on his last call — yes, he timed it). And stories like theirs are about to become central to the next Obamacare fight, what I like to think of as the battle of the anecdotes.

The battle of the anecdotes is all-but-guaranteed because access to health care is really difficult to measure, even more so than the number of people who have enrolled or how well HealthCare.gov is functioning. With enrollment, for example, HealthCare.gov can track all the people who pick a private insurance plan, as can the 14-state based insurance exchanges. That’s how we know 2.1 million people have selected private insurance plans (although we don’t know how many have paid their first month’s premium, which is due, for January coverage, by this Friday).

The federal government can gauge how well HealthCare.gov is working by tracking how long it takes pages to load, or how many enrollment files — known as ‘834s’ — contain errors. And the call centers know, too, how long customers have to wait to get a person on the line.

But when it comes to access to health care, there’s no analogous metric. Our health-care system is really fragmented. Since HealthCare.gov shoppers are buying private coverage, and not a government plan, we have no central clearing house to understand whether more shoppers are having an experience like Scott in Texas — or like Browne in California.

Nonprofit institutions do study these types of questions. The Commonwealth Fund, for example, regularly looks at how long patients in different countries have to wait to see a primary-care doctor or a particular surgeon. But these surveys take months to conduct and analyze, meaning that we will probably have to wait until late 2014 or early 2015 to get a sense of what access looks like under the Affordable Care Act.

Enter the anecdote, which can be great to understand how new policy programs are impacting the way that Americans receive health care. But they can also be a really terrible way to gauge whether Obamacare is going great — or is a complete disaster. One or two stories don’t do a great job of capturing the experience of the millions of Americans who have signed up for health plans.

And even the anecdotes themselves can be nuanced, portrayed in different ways to make Obamacare seem great, or horrible. Take Browne: She called for an appointment in her new network the morning of Jan. 2. But she couldn’t get through to a real, live person until that afternoon; she kept getting a message that said “all circuits are busy.”

(more…)

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