| January 30
January 30 Many Americans who visit the doctor
this year are in for some unexpected pain.
A growing number, many of them in employer-sponsored health
plans, are enrolled in high-deductible health insurance plans
that typically have lower premiums but require consumers to pay
thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses before coverage
The elderly and the very sick have long battled to have
medical procedures and prescriptions covered by private insurers
and Medicare. But people in traditional employer-provided plans
with $10 or $20 co-pays for medical treatment have been shielded
because they do not typically see another bill.
Now it can take almost all year for healthy people to meet a
large deductible, which often is two or three times higher than
what they are used to paying.
As the high-deductible plans increase in popularity, more
people will have to navigate a bill-paying system that's often
fraught with errors and confusion.
"It can get overwhelming to consumers," said Victoria
Veltri, the Connecticut Healthcare Advocate, who is in charge of
the state agency that helps consumers with healthcare coverage
issues. In 2012 she fielded hundreds of queries on
high-deductible health plans. "It means lots and lots of just
straight-up bills because somebody went into the doctor's office
for a problem."
MORE HIGH-DEDUCTIBLE PLANS
High-deductible plans have been around for almost a decade,
but more individuals and companies are turning to them in an
effort to curb rising healthcare costs. Almost 20 percent of
U.S. workers are in the plans, up from 13 percent two years ago,
according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. While estimates vary,
some benefits experts say that could more than double by 2014.
Consumers typically pay lower premiums for the plans, but
the deductible can be as high as $3,250 for a single person and
$6,450 for a family in 2013.
Paying those upfront costs is supposed to encourage
consumers to shop around for comparable, lower-priced care. A
2011 study by the RAND Corporation showed that people in these
accounts cut medical spending by an average of 14 percent during
the first year after switching.
Another reason the plans are getting more popular is that
the president's healthcare reform requires them to include free
preventive services. That will be enough for many people,
especially young, healthy individuals.
The U.S. Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, more
commonly known as Obamacare, has also introduced new insurance
appeals processes that require outsiders to review disputed
claims for all insurance plans. The law also created grants for
state agencies such as Veltri's to help consumers cope with the
Most often, Veltri said, consumers are calling with
questions about why their plans are not covering appointments
they believed would be free. People who need help with billing
errors and "balance billing," in which doctors bill patients for
the portion of their bill that the insurer has not paid, are the
next most popular calls.
IN AND OUT OF NETWORK
Disputes can arise from in-network and out-of-network
visits. After an in-network high-deductible-plan visit, the
doctor sends a bill to the insurance company, which sets the
price. If the insurer has a contract with the doctor, the
patient is billed for the agreed-upon amount. Charging patients
for the unpaid balance is against insurance law in most states.
Meeting the deductible can take a while, even in-network. In
recently created health plans, preventive services such as
vaccines, well visits for children, annual checkups for adults
and cholesterol screenings are free. In family plans with health
savings accounts, members pool their qualifying payments and
must meet the entire deductible before insurance kicks in.
If the problem is at the insurer and not at the provider,
then the insured can appeal to the insurer. For people in
insured plans that are paid for by the insurers, the next step
is the state insurance regulator.
Harvey Sigelbaum, 75, a retired healthcare executive who
lives in New York City, has already had a taste of the hassles
ahead for people wrangling with high-deductible plans. Most of
his doctors have stopped participating in his private insurance
plan over the past decade and no longer deal directly with
Medicare, he said. Instead, they bill him directly.
"It's very complicated, and it takes a lot of paperwork," he
said. "There was a time the doctor would take care of the claim
for you and they would get reimbursed."
Sigelbaum and his wife use an outside group, Health
Advocate, to help handle his medical bills and reimbursements.
When there are no pricing agreements, consumers should
enlist their insurers to help bring down high bills and
straighten out mistakes, according to James Wrynn, a former
deputy superintendent in the New York State Financial Services
Department who is now a lawyer at Goldberg Segalla.
They may be surprised to find that the insurer can be an
"To an extent the insurance companies are aligned with the
patient, even with high-deductibles, because they don't
necessarily want to see the patient go through the deductible
because then they are on the hook," he said.