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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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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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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Driving a New Bargain in Health Care

By TYLER COWEN, professor of economics at George Mason University

Interesting piece on possible compromises that both political parties could agree to in improving the health care law.

The Affordable Care Act has gotten off to a rocky start. Federal and state online health insurance exchanges, which opened for business at the beginning of the month, have been bedeviled by technical snags. And opposition to the law from some House Republicans blocked funding for the entire federal government, leading to its partial shutdown.

In fact, with all the conflict and vituperation over Obamacare, it sometimes seems that one of the few things Democrats and Republicans agree on is that the law is imperfect at best. And they also agree that it could be improved. Even if a bipartisan deal to create a better health care system seems far off today, it’s not too soon to start imagining what a future bargain might look like.

Just to get started, I will assume that, at some point, Democrats will be willing to acknowledge that not everything has worked out as planned with the legislation, and that they would consider a rewrite that would expand coverage. I’ll also assume that Republicans will acknowledge that a feasible rewrite of the bill cannot give the Democrats nothing. And Republicans will need to recognize that repeal of Obamacare should not be their obsession, because they would then be leaving the nation with a dysfunctional yet still highly government-oriented health care system, not some lost conservative paradise. Both sides have a lot to gain, and, at some point, they should realize it.

Let’s look at some of the current problems in the health care system and see whether they might be patched up.

Even under Obamacare, many people will not have health insurance coverage, including two-thirds of poor blacks and single mothers and more than half the low-wage workers who lacked coverage before the law was enacted. That is largely because of the unwillingness of 26 governors to expand Medicaid coverage as the original bill had intended. The Supreme Court struck down that portion of the Affordable Care Act, however, giving states a choice.

Will many red-state governors eventually accept the act’s Medicaid extension, which is sometimes portrayed as a financial free lunch, since federal aid covers most of the coverage expansion? It’s not clear that they will. If the Republicans win the White House in 2016 and perhaps the House and Senate as well, they may cut off federal funds for that Medicaid expansion. In the meantime, many states don’t want to extend their Medicaid rolls, because such benefits are hard to withdraw once granted.

There is a deeper problem with relying heavily on Medicaid as the backbone of health care for the poor. The fact that so many governors have found political gain in opposing a nearly fully-funded Medicaid expansion suggests that long-term support for Medicaid is weaker than it appeared just a few years ago. Furthermore, in cyclical downturns, the increase in Medicaid coverage after a climb in unemployment puts much strain on state budgets.

A separate issue concerns employers who are shedding insurance coverage, whether by dropping retirees, moving more workers to part-time status, withholding coverage and paying fines mandated by law, or simply not hiring more workers in the first place. The magnitude of these effects is not yet clear, but over time we can expect that new businesses and new hiring will be structured to minimize costly insurance obligations. It’s no accident that the Obama administration handed out more than 1,000 exemptions from the employer coverage mandate, and postponed the employer mandate until 2015: both actions reflected underlying problems in the legislation. Ideally, the health care law should minimize what is essentially an implicit tax on hiring.

One way forward would look like this: Federalize Medicaid, remove its obligations from state budgets altogether and gradually shift people from Medicaid into the health care exchanges and the network of federal insurance subsidies. One benefit would be that private insurance coverage brings better care access than Medicaid, which many doctors are reluctant to accept.

To help pay for such a major shift, the federal government would cut back on revenue sharing with the states and repeal the deductibility of state income taxes. The states should be able to afford these changes because a big financial obligation would be removed from their budgets.

By moving people from Medicaid to Obamacare, the Democrats could claim a major coverage expansion, an improvement in the quality of care and access for the poor, and a stabilization of President Obama’s legacy — even if the result isn’t exactly the Affordable Care Act as it was enacted. The Republicans could claim that they did away with Medicaid, expanded the private insurance market, and moved the nation closer to a flat-tax system by eliminating some deductions, namely those for state income taxes paid.

At the same time, I’d recommend narrowing the scope of required insurance to focus on catastrophic expenses. If insurance picks up too many small expenses, it encourages abuse and overuse of scarce resources.

In sum, poorer Americans would get a guarantee of coverage and, with private but federally subsidized insurance, gain better access to quality care for significant expenses than they have now with Medicaid. Private insurance pays more and is accepted by many more doctors. But on the downside, the insured care would be less comprehensive than under current definitions of Obamacare’s mandate.

With a cheaper and more modest insurance package mandated under a retooled law, employers would be less intent on dropping coverage. That would help in job creation. It also would lower the federal cost of the subsidies through the exchanges, both because employers would cover more workers and because the insurance policies would be cheaper.

This wouldn’t be an ideal health care system, but it may be the best we can do, considering where we stand today.

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How to Charge $546 for Six Liters of Saltwater

This article exposes some of the ways medical product suppliers and hospitals mark up products, sometimes 1,000 times, to capture profitable revenue from sick patients and their insurance companies.  Another example of all of the players getting caught with their hand in the cookie jar.  Will it ever change?

By NINA BERNSTEIN for the NY TImes
It is one of the most common components of emergency medicine: an intravenous bag of sterile saltwater.

Luckily for anyone who has ever needed an IV bag to replenish lost fluids or to receive medication, it is also one of the least expensive. The average manufacturer’s price, according to government data, has fluctuated in recent years from 44 cents to $1.

Yet there is nothing either cheap or simple about its ultimate cost, as I learned when I tried to trace the commercial path of IV bags from the factory to the veins of more than 100 patients struck by a May 2012 outbreak of food poisoning in upstate New York.

 Some of the patients’ bills would later include markups of 100 to 200 times the manufacturer’s price, not counting separate charges for “IV administration.” And on other bills, a bundled charge for “IV therapy” was almost 1,000 times the official cost of the solution.

It is no secret that medical care in the United States is overpriced. But as the tale of the humble IV bag shows all too clearly, it is secrecy that helps keep prices high: hidden in the underbrush of transactions among multiple buyers and sellers, and in the hieroglyphics of hospital bills.
At every step from manufacturer to patient, there are confidential deals among the major players, including drug companies, purchasing organizations and distributors, and insurers. These deals so obscure prices and profits that even participants cannot say what the simplest component of care actually costs, let alone what it should cost.

And that leaves taxpayers and patients alike with an inflated bottom line and little or no way to challenge it.

A Price in Flux

In the food-poisoning case, some of the stricken were affluent, and others barely made ends meet. Some had private insurance; some were covered by government programs like Medicare and Medicaid; and some were uninsured.

In the end, those factors strongly (and sometimes perversely) affected overall charges for treatment, including how much patients were expected to pay out of pocket. But at the beginning, there was the cost of an IV bag of normal saline, one of more than a billion units used in the United States each year.

“People are shocked when they hear that a bag of saline solution costs far less than their cup of coffee in the morning,” said Deborah Spak, a spokeswoman for Baxter International, one of three global pharmaceutical companies that make nearly all the IV solutions used in the United States.

It was a rare unguarded comment. Ms. Spak — like a spokesman for Hospira, another giant in the field — later insisted that all information about saline solution prices was private.

In fact, manufacturers are required to report such prices annually to the federal government, which bases Medicare payments on the average national price plus 6 percent. The limit for one liter of normal saline (a little more than a quart) went to $1.07 this year from 46 cents in 2010, an increase manufacturers linked to the cost of raw materials, fuel and transportation. That would seem to make it the rare medical item that is cheaper in the United States than in France, where the price at a typical hospital in Paris last year was 3.62 euros, or $4.73.

Middlemen at the Fore

One-liter IV bags normally contain nine grams of salt, less than two teaspoons. Much of it comes from a major Morton Salt operation in Rittman, Ohio, which uses a subterranean salt deposit formed millions of years ago. The water is local to places like Round Lake, Ill., or Rocky Mount, N.C., where Baxter and Hospira, respectively, run their biggest automated production plants under sterility standards set by the Food and Drug Administration.

But even before the finished product is sold by the case or the truckload, the real cost of a bag of normal saline, like the true cost of medical supplies from gauze to heart implants, disappears into an opaque realm of byzantine contracts, confidential rebates and fees that would be considered illegal kickbacks in many other industries.

IV bags can function like cheap milk and eggs in a high-priced grocery store, or like the one-cent cellphone locked into an expensive service contract. They serve as loss leaders in exclusive contracts with “preferred manufacturers” that bundle together expensive drugs and basics, or throw in “free” medical equipment with costly consequences.

Few hospitals negotiate these deals themselves. Instead, they rely on two formidable sets of middlemen: a few giant group-purchasing organizations that negotiate high-volume contracts, and a few giant distributors that buy and store medical supplies and deliver them to hospitals.

Proponents of this system say it saves hospitals billions in economies of scale. Critics say the middlemen not only take their cut, but they have a strong interest in keeping most prices high and competition minimal.

The top three group-purchasing organizations now handle contracts for more than half of all institutional medical supplies sold in the United States, including the IVs used in the food-poisoning case, which were bought and taken by truck to regional warehouses by big distributors.
These contracts proved to be another black box. Debbie Mitchell, a spokeswoman for Cardinal Health, one of the three largest distributors, said she could not discuss costs or prices under “disclosure rules relative to our investor relations.”

Distributors match different confidential prices for the same product with each hospital’s contract, she said, and sell information on the buyers back to manufacturers.

A huge Cardinal distribution center is in Montgomery, N.Y. — only 30 miles, as it happens, from the landscaped grounds of the Buddhist monastery in Carmel, N.Y., where many of the food-poisoning victims fell ill on Mother’s Day 2012.

Among them were families on 10 tour buses that had left Chinatown in Manhattan that morning to watch dragon dances at the monastery. After eating lunch from food stalls there, some traveled on to the designer outlet stores at Woodbury Common, about 30 miles away, before falling sick.

The symptoms were vicious. “Within two hours of eating that rice that I had bought, I was lying on the ground barely conscious,” said Dr. Elizabeth Frost, 73, an anesthesiologist from Purchase in Westchester County who was visiting the monastery gardens with two friends. “I can’t believe no one died.”

About 100 people were taken to hospitals in the region by ambulance; five were admitted and the rest released the same day. The New York State Department of Health later found the cause was a common bacterium, Staphylococcus aureus, from improperly cooked or stored food sold in the stalls.

Mysterious Charges

The sick entered a health care ecosystem under strain, swept by consolidation and past efforts at cost containment.
For more than a decade, hospitals in the Hudson Valley, like those across the country, have scrambled for mergers and alliances to offset economic pressures from all sides. The five hospitals where most of the victims were treated are all part of merged entities jockeying for bargaining power and market share — or worrying that other players will leave them struggling to survive.

The Affordable Care Act encourages these developments as it drives toward a reimbursement system that strives to keep people out of hospitals through more coordinated, cost-efficient care paid on the basis of results, not services. But the billing mysteries in the food poisoning case show how easily cost-cutting can turn into cost-shifting.

A Chinese-American toddler from Brooklyn and her 56-year-old grandmother, treated and released within hours from the emergency room at St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital, ran up charges of more than $4,000 and were billed for $1,400 — the hospital’s rate for the uninsured, even though the family is covered by a health maintenance organization under Medicaid, the federal-state program for poor people.
The charges included “IV therapy,” billed at $787 for the adult and $393 for the child, which suggests that the difference in the amount of saline infused, typically less than a liter, could alone account for several hundred dollars.

Tricia O’Malley, a spokeswoman for the hospital, would not disclose the price it pays per IV bag or break down the therapy charge, which she called the hospital’s “private pay rate,” or the sticker price charged to people without insurance. She said she could not explain why patients covered by Medicaid were billed at all.

Eventually the head of the family, an electrician’s helper who speaks little English, complained to HealthFirst, the Medicaid H.M.O. It paid $119 to settle the grandmother’s $2,168 bill, without specifying how much of the payment was for the IV. It paid $66.50 to the doctor, who had billed $606.

At White Plains Hospital, a patient with private insurance from Aetna was charged $91 for one unit of Hospira IV that cost the hospital 86 cents, according to a hospital spokeswoman, Eliza O’Neill.

Ms. O’Neill defended the markup as “consistent with industry standards.” She said it reflected “not only the cost of the solution but a variety of related services and processes,” like procurement, biomedical handling and storage, apparently not included in a charge of $127 for administering the IV and $893 for emergency-room services.

The patient, a financial services professional in her 50s, ended up paying $100 for her visit. “Honestly, I don’t understand the system at all,” said the woman, who shared the information on the condition that she not be named.

Dr. Frost, the anesthesiologist, spent three days in the same hospital and owed only $8, thanks to insurance coverage by United HealthCare. Still, she was baffled by the charges: $6,844, including $546 for six liters of saline that cost the hospital $5.16.
“It’s just absolutely absurd.” she said. “That’s saltwater.”

Last fall, I appealed to the New York State Department of Health for help in mapping the charges for rehydrating patients in the food poisoning episode. Deploying software normally used to detect Medicaid fraud, a team compiled a chart of what Medicaid and Medicare were billed in six of the cases.

But the department has yet to release the chart. It is under indefinite review, Bill Schwarz, a department spokesman, said, “to ensure confidential information is not compromised.”

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For Obamacare, Some Hurdles Still Ahead

President Obama and his advisers hope the healthcare overhaul will do two things. The first is to extend coverage to tens of millions of Americans who today lack health insurance. The second is to hold the line on rising health care costs. This article describes some hurdles to achieving those two goals. While you are enjoying a vacation this summer, hopefully you will have time to ponder the impacts Health Care Reform will have on you and your family.

By Eduardo Porter, NY Times

Like other big employers, in the mid-1990s Harvard University was struggling with the ballooning cost of providing health insurance.
It chose what was a novel solution for the time. It dropped its standard deal — a subsidy that rose in line with the price of the insurance policy — and switched some 10,000 workers on its payroll to a fixed subsidy that encouraged them to shop around for care.

For Harvard’s accountants, the change worked wonders. A study a couple of years later by David M. Cutler, a Harvard economist, and Sarah Reber, a Harvard graduate, concluded that competition among insurers cut the university’s health bill by 5 to 8 percent.
But not everybody was equally pleased. Families of workers who chose the Preferred Provider Organization offered by Blue Cross/Blue Shield — the most comprehensive plan, with lots of doctors and hospitals on its network — faced a $500-a-year jump in their out-of-pocket spending on health care.

Younger and healthier workers canceled their P.P.O. plans, enrolling in cheaper H.M.O. options or dropping Harvard insurance altogether. Left with a sicker patient base, the P.P.O. raised its premiums further, which prompted the next layer of relatively healthy customers to leave.
And so on. In 1997, Blue Cross/Blue Shield withdrew its P.P.O. from the market, making it a victim of what economists call the death spiral of adverse selection.

In a couple of months the nation is set to experience a similar shock on a very large scale: the greatest change in how Americans pay for health care since the advent of Medicare nearly half a century ago.

Come October, millions of uninsured people will be able to choose one of several health plans, offered at four different tiers of service and cost through new health exchanges coming onstream in every state.

Cheap “bronze” plans will shoulder some 60 percent of patients’ medical expenses. Pricey “platinum” plans will cover at least 90 percent. But insurers will not be allowed to exclude people with pre-existing conditions, or charge more for the sick, or put a lifetime cap on medical costs. Their policies will have to cover a minimum standard of medical care. And the government will subsidize those who cannot afford to buy the policies.

President Obama and his advisers hope the overhaul will do two things. The first is to extend coverage to tens of millions of Americans who today lack health insurance. The second is to hold the line on rising health care costs.

“Over time, success will depend on what happens to the cost curve,” Professor Cutler told me. “If we don’t bend the cost curve, everything will fail. The government won’t be able to afford it. Nobody will be able to afford it.”

In theory, the overhaul could meet both goals. Millions of new Americans armed with a subsidy and shopping among plans would bring consumer choice to bear, finally, on the health care industry. Insurers would compete to create policies that offered the most value for money, pressuring hospitals and doctors on behalf of all of us.

Yet despite the care the administration took in establishing incentives and safeguards, even some of Obamacare’s most committed backers are wondering whether the experiment will work as advertised — or, like Harvard’s P.P.O., go off the rails along the way.

Adverse selection is perhaps the direst threat. For Obamacare to work, millions of healthy, young, uninsured Americans must join a health plan to counterbalance the sicker millions who are most likely to buy insurance. Otherwise, health plans on the exchanges will have to raise premiums to shoulder the higher costs.

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Tips for Lowering Your Medical Bills

Don’t be intimidated by high medical bills. What patients don’t realize is a review to find errors and working with the provider can often enable you to reduce medical bills. To enhance your outcome, enlist the services of a medical bill negotiation expert. With the help of a professional who can provide data, most providers will negotiate and offer some type of discount on out-of-pocket medical expenses. Here are some excellent tips that every health care consumer should know when faced with large and expensive medical bills.

By Alice Park, Time Magazine Online

It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally you can catch a mistake on a restaurant check or a miscalculated receipt from the grocery store. Hospital bills, however, are another matter: as many as 8 out of 10 bills for health care services contain errors, according to Medical Billing Advocates of America. Since Americans spend nearly $7,000 per capita on health care every year — and since these expenses climb steadily, at an average annual rate of 6.5% — it’s probably worth scrutinizing the remittance from your last hospital visit. It just might save you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

According to medical-billing advocates, who are the health care world’s equivalent of tax-refund specialists, there are ways to protect yourself from huge health care expenditures both before you’re seen by a doctor and after you receive your bill. “When you are in the hospital, you should concentrate on getting better,” says Kevin Flynn, president of HealthCare Associations, a company that helps patients decipher their medical bills. “Do what is best medically first, then worry about the finances second.”

At the emergency room or in the hospital:

If you are insured, ask to be seen by a doctor who participates in your insurance plan. Just because a hospital is considered in-network by your plan doesn’t mean that all the physicians who work there are as well. This may not always be possible, but if your preference is noted in your file, once you receive your bill, you may be able to negotiate with the hospital to accept your insurer’s higher in-network reimbursement rate, leaving you with a smaller financial responsibility, even if you are seen by an out-of-network doctor.

For the same reason, if you are able to, ask to have any lab testing that is sent outside the hospital to be sent to facilities that participate in your insurer’s plan.

If possible, ask about the tests the doctor or nurses are ordering. If a less expensive test can provide the same information, then request that option. In some cases, for example, less expensive ultrasound tests are just as effective as costly CT scans.

Once you get your bill:

Always ask for an itemized bill so you can see every charge.

Ask for an explanation, in writing, from the hospital’s billing department for any disputed charges.

If you go to the hospital at night and end up being admitted after midnight, make sure your charges for the room start on the day you start occupying the room.

Check the level of room for which you were charged. Hospitals charge for ER services by level, depending on the amount of equipment and supplies needed, with Level 1 requiring the fewest (e.g., a nosebleed) and Level 5 representing an emergency (trauma, heart attack). Question the level indicated on your bill and ask for a written explanation of why that level was billed. Hospitals have their own criteria for determining levels and should make this available upon request. “They don’t freely hand this information out, but they will send it to you if you ask for a written response,” says Pat Palmer, founder of Medical Billing Advocates of America.

Doctors also charge for ER services by level, also ranging from 1 to 5. Their levels are standardized, and physicians are required to meet three criteria to justify billing at each level. Question the level listed on your bill and ask for a written explanation of why that level was billed by your physician.

The hospital level should be equal to or lower than that of the doctor-billed level; if it’s higher, that’s a red flag that there may be a billing error.

Question charges for what seem like routine items, such as warm blankets, gloves and lights. These should be included as part of the facility fee.

Question any additional readings of tests or scans. You should be charged only once for one doctor’s reading of a scan, unless it is a second opinion or consultation.

If you received anesthesia, check that you were charged for only one anesthesiologist. Some hospitals use certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs) but require that an anesthesiologist supervise the procedure, so some bills will contain charges from both, which amounts to double billing.

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Health Care Reform Rules Give Patients A New Bill Of Rights

Health Care Reform initiatives have yielded a new “Patient Bill of Rights” since November. There will be a great number of changes enacted in 2013 leading up to 2014 when coverage mandates, state insurance exchanges and tax changes take effect for health care. Sound confusing?, It certainly will be. In the meantime, “Know your rights” and check back with us periodically to learn how to navigate health care cost and confusion.

Jeffrey Young – Huff Post Business – 11/20/2012

Health insurance consumers won’t be discriminated against because of pre-existing conditions, can’t be charged more because of gender and will be guaranteed a basic set of benefits under historic new federal regulations published Tuesday.

Think of them as the Patients’ Bill of Rights that eluded former President Bill Clinton more than a decade ago. The regulations carry out the promises of President Barack Obama’s health care reform law, which will extend health insurance coverage to 30 million people over a decade and outlaw some of the industry’s most notorious practices.

Health insurance companies, state regulators and consumer advocates have eagerly awaited these rules since Obama enacted the health care overhaul in March 2010.

The details contained within the 331 pages of regulations are crucial for health insurance companies and states preparing for the new options that will be available to uninsured people and small businesses starting in 2014. The health insurance exchanges, online marketplaces where consumers can shop for plans and determine whether they qualify for tax credits to pay for private insurance coverage or Medicaid benefits, are slated to be open for business on Oct. 1, 2013.

“Americans in all 50 states will have access to an exchange and the benefits of the new law,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday. “Beginning in October next year, families and small-business owners everywhere will be able to shop for affordable, quality health coverage.”

The Department of Health and Human Services published three separate regulations Tuesday. Broadly, the rules restate the health insurance market reforms in Obama’s health care law. But health insurance companies and state officials that aren’t actively resisting the implementation of Obamacare need the details to ensure that health insurance exchanges are ready, and health plans available for sale on time.

One lays out the rules requiring health insurance companies to sell coverage to anyone who applies, prohibits charging women more than men, limits how much people must pay additionally based on age, where they live, family size and whether they use tobacco, and guarantees renewal of health coverage every year.

A second set of regulations spells out which benefits all health insurance plans sold on the exchanges must cover — 10 categories of medical care, including emergency services, hospital stays, maternity care, prescription drugs and preventive medicine. In addition, the rule explains how states must designate an insurance product already on the market as a “benchmark plan” to serve as a model for what the new insurance products will cover starting in 2014. This regulation also sets up how health insurance companies must prove their plans will cover at least 60 percent of a consumer’s average annual medical expenses.

The cost of health insurance on the exchanges will be subsidized using tax credits for people with incomes up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $44,680 this year. People who make up to 133 percent of poverty, $14,856 in 2012, will qualify for Medicaid in states that opt into an expansion of the health program for the poor.

The Obama administration published a third rule on “wellness” programs that employers include in workers’ health benefits, such as discounts to employees who quit smoking, lose weight or lower their cholesterol. The new regulations are designed, in part, to prevent companies from using the programs to set prices to discriminate against workers who don’t meet the wellness programs’ standards.

Publishing these regulations is just one small step toward 2014, however, and major obstacles remain. As of Monday, just 17 states and the District of Columbia had committed to creating a health insurance exchange themselves as the law sets out, according to a tally by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. The federal government will have to step in, and partially or completely establish these exchanges in the rest of the states, including those run by Republican governors like Rick Perry of Texas who have vowed continued opposition to the law.

“Now that the law is here to stay, I’m hopeful that states and other partners will continue to work with us to implement the law,” said Sebelius, who offered to meet with governors who have outstanding questions about states’ role in carrying out the health care reform law. Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), an ardent opponent of Obamacare, last week wrote Sebelius requesting a sit-down.

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Hospital Bills Disputed by Patients

As the Health Care Reform Act is implemented over the next two years there will continue to be disputes between Insurers and providers regarding payment. Providers often take large discounts to be in network in return for a greater volume of patients through networks with insurers. It’s a  price for volume trade-off familiar to those who are economics minded. There are often problems in the interpretation and execution of agreements and the associated health care billing practices. Sometimes this results in balance bills being sent to consumers. This article profiles a dispute in New Jersey. Be prepared for other similar disputes across the country.

Meadowlands Hospital bills disputed by patients, Aetna

By  LINDY WASHBURN -The Record, Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Meadowlands Hospital Medical Center has billed hundreds of patients in the last few weeks for care they thought was covered by their Aetna insurance ­policies. The bills — some for thousands of dollars — demand payment within five days.

Aetna’s advice to the recipients: Don’t pay.

Aetna customers who receive bills from Meadowlands Hospital Medical Center are urged to contact the Department of Banking and Insurance at 800-446-7467, or file a complaint online at state.nj.us/dobi/consumer.htm

The dispute shines a light on the complicated terrain that underlies relationships between hospitals and insurers. When new owners bought the Secaucus medical center in December 2010, the state required that the for-profit company make “a reasonable attempt to continue the ­current commercial insurance contracts” for at least a year.

As a result, Aetna says, its contract with the hospital was in force in 2011 — when the bills were incurred — and so the hospital must accept the lower rate it had negotiated as payment in full.

The hospital, however, has told patients they must pay the difference between that contract rate and its regular, higher charges. The letters to those patients state clearly, “You remain obligated to pay all outstanding invoices.” They ask for payment by credit card, certified check or money order.

Meadowlands President Lynn McVey declined through a spokesman to address the contract question.

“Regrettably,” she said in a prepared statement, “a national health insurer is withholding some payments for its plan members who have previously utilized our services. Until this matter is clarified and resolved through negotiations, our reluctant recourse is to follow standard procedure … and seek payment from individuals who were previously treated by [the hospital] and still have an outstanding balance.”

Eileen O’Donnell of North Arlington was told she owed $4,745 for an emergency-room visit in May 2011 to treat a foot injury. That was more than 20 times Aetna’s member rate of $204. Her total responsibility, according to Aetna’s explanation of benefits, was $68.40.

And Kaarin Varon of East Rutherford received a demand from Meadowlands for $13,004 for the care of her son, who was hospitalized with pneumonia last year. Aetna already had paid $1,596 as its contracted rate for his stay.

“I have to admit, I was not sure how a contract dispute had me involved in all this,” said Varon. “But the [Meadowlands billing] representative basically told me it was now my responsibility.”

The state Department of Banking and Insurance is working with the health department to resolve the issue, according to Marshall McKnight, an insurance department spokesman. “Our goal is to protect consumers as much as possible through this process,” he said. Patients who receive the bills are urged to contact the department, he said.

The dispute comes at a time when questions are being raised about finances at the hospital. An independent draft audit for 2011 showed a 10 percent profit margin — four times the state average. A year after MHA LLC, a private investment group, bought Meadowlands in December 2010, the new owners had reversed the $10.4 million operating loss reported for 2010 and posted a $9 million profit, according to the draft submitted to the state.

The dispute also highlights the vast difference between a hospital’s customary charges and the rates negotiated with insurance companies for hospital care. The negotiated rates are often a fraction — 5 percent or 10 percent — of those customary charges.

Some hospitals opt to stay out of insurance contracts as a strategy to increase revenues.

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Sixteen percent of Americans unable to pay medical bills, according to Consumer Reports’ Trouble Tracker Index

Medical Cost Advocate recently appeared in the September issue of Consumer Reports. One of the key points of this article is the assertion that consumers should line up a medical billing advocate or their own alternatives proactively. Don’t wait until its too late to do your research and find a health care negotiator.

Consumer Reports: How to Haggle With Your Doctor or Hospital

YONKERS, NY — When we visit our doctors, we don’t typically think of ourselves as “consumers” or buyers of health care, but in these tough times, that is precisely the role a patient needs to play to avoid drowning in a sea of medical bills. What are the best strategies for haggling with your doctor or hospital? A new report in the October issue of Consumer Reports and online at www.ConsumerReportsHealth.org features advice from Consumer Reports’ medical expert and M.D., John Santa.

According to the latest Consumer Reports Index, which gauges the health of the economy from the consumer perspective, 16.3 percent of Americans are unable to afford medical bills.

“Americans are overwhelmed by health costs and many people simply can’t pay their bills, can’t afford their medications,” says John Santa, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center. “The last thing most patients want to do is haggle with their doctors, but a little bit of negotiating can go a long way. It’s also important to know that there are tremendous variations in health care costs—knowing this can help a consumer get a hand up and politely insist on the fairest possible price.”

Here’s Consumer Reports’ advice for three possible scenarios:

You’re healthy.The optimal time for patients to talk with their healthcare providers about costs is before any have been incurred. While doctors have a professional obligation to take a patient’s financial resources into account, patients should raise the issue with their doctors to let them know that costs are important to them. “For a variety of reasons, doctors are likely to suggest the most expensive options first. But you might be surprised by your doctor’s willingness to change course, for example prescribing fewer expensive brand name drugs or choosing watchful waiting over a costly diagnostic test,” says Santa.

The unexpected occurs. A patient lands in the hospital without the benefit of any planning and gets slammed with a huge bill, say $15,000 for a coronary angiogram, and insurance ends up covering only a fraction of the bill. Consumer Reports recommends these approaches to get the greatest reduction to their bill:

  • Sit down with the doctor who ordered or performed the hospital services to find out how the hospital costs ran so high. Were all the services needed and reasonably priced? Consumers can judge for themselves by checking www.healthcarebluebook.com which lists the going rates for many medical services for free. Closely examine each bill to identify errors, which are common.
  • Consumers should not assume the price on their bill is set in stone. Providers often discount rates substantially to insurers and others, so why shouldn’t a consumer ask for the same rate reduction? Consumers should dispute any charges they think their insurance company ought to cover.
  • Patients should not pay their bill until they have exhausted all of their options, but they should make clear to the hospital’s billing department that reaching a resolution is important to them. They might consider making a discounted offer they think would be manageable within a set time period. Consumers can consult one of the reputable groups that, for a fee, can help reduce the size of medical bills, such as Medical Cost Advocate (localhost/wp1).

You’re having an elective surgery. This situation allows for more planning and research into the best procedure, doctor, hospital, drug or other option. “Use your time wisely to do the research because variations in health-care costs can be significant, and providers will gladly let you overpay for a service that you could get for less,” says Santa. Keep in mind the following advice:

  • Consumers should shop around, talk to different providers, and bargain for what they think is a fair price.
  • Consumers shouldn’t hesitate to ask for the price upfront and get it in writing. Request an itemized list of all potential charges.
  • As with any purchase, consumers should beware of any offer that sounds too good to be true. If a provider suggests a shortcut, be wary and ask a lot of questions, and check out providers that are unfamiliar.

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