How to avoid and handle surprise medical bills
© Getty Images

Surprise bills are never a welcome surprise. Typically, they arrive after you arranged care from a doctor and a hospital that were both in your health plan’s network, but then you were unexpectedly treated by one or more other providers who, unbeknownst to you, were outside that network.

When these out-of-network providers send you a bill for their services, you may have to pay the full amount out of pocket or, if your health plan covers out-of-network care, to pay the balance of the bill that your insurance fails to cover. And the balance bill generally requires you to pay more than the out-of-pocket amount you would have owed if you had been treated by an in-network provider.

ADVERTISEMENT
Emergency rooms are one of the most common locations where healthcare results in surprise bills. As detailed recently in an article by two Yale scholars in the New England Journal of Medicine, in more than one in five cases nationwide, ER visits to an in-network facility involved out-of-network physicians. The average balance billed to patients was $622.55, though the study reported bills as high as $19,603.30. But, ERs are not the only source of surprise bills. Even when a patient goes to a hospital for routine surgery, and takes care to choose an in-network hospital and in-network surgeon, the anesthesiologist, radiologist or pathologist assigned to the case may be out of network, and follow up with a surprise bill.

Several states have already enacted laws to protect consumers against surprise bills, although some of the statutes protect patients only in the case of balance bills for out-of-network ER services for a serious medical emergency. Currently, the issue is being discussed in a number of statehouses. In the meantime, here are steps you can take to protect yourself from such surprises.

Prevent surprise bills

The best defense against a surprise bill is prevention. If you have a serious medical emergency, your nearest hospital may not be in-network and all your treatment may result in out-of-pocket expense for high surprise bills. But, even if you visit an in-network ER, you have little control over the choice of doctor: By definition, you are facing an emergency, and must take whoever is available. However, for a planned surgery or other procedure, you probably have time to speak up. Make sure that your doctor and hospital are in your plan’s network.  Check with them and with your plan. Ask your physician and your hospital in advance if they can arrange to have only in-network providers treat you.

Some hospitals may have no in-network specialist for care you might require. Find out if another hospital in your area can provide all your necessary services on an in-network basis. In some areas, there may be no in-network specialists available of the type you need. In that case, inform your plan that its network lacks necessary services and find out if the terms of the plan or state law provide you protection from large balance bills in such circumstances.

Always refer to your plan by its exact official name. Often insurers have multiple plans with similar names but different networks. If you use the wrong plan name when inquiring about a plan’s network, you may get a wrong and costly answer. Make your inquiries and requests in writing so you have documentation. Ask for the names of the providers who will be involved in your care, and check with your insurer and with the providers themselves to see if they are all in your plan’s network.

Check if your state protects consumers

If you do get a surprise bill, take action. Check with your state insurance regulator to see if your state has any consumer protections against surprise bills. Many states have laws that require HMOs to protect consumers from surprise bills, especially with respect to necessary ER services. Fewer states have similar protections for other types of health plans, such as PPOs and EPOs. At present, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida and New York do have such protections against unexpected balance bills — either for out-of-network ER situations alone or for additional types of surprise bills. Generally, these laws provide that the consumer is required to pay only the amount he or she would owe for the services if provided in-network. States have different mechanisms for settling the balance, but they generally involve the insurer and the provider, not the patient.

If your state does not provide protection

If your state does not offer protection against surprise bills, check first to make sure the provider is really not in your network. Back offices and billing companies deal with many plans and sometimes make mistakes. Providers who are in your network have to accept the insurer’s contracted rate.

If the provider is out of network, do some research on an independent website, such as fairhealthconsumer.org, to estimate what the procedure typically costs in your locality. If your plan’s reimbursement is based on an amount that is less than the typical charge, you can use this information to ask the plan to pay the provider on the basis of at least the typical rate. If the out-of-network provider’s charge is higher than the typical rate, you might be able to negotiate with the provider to reduce your costs. You can try to persuade the provider to reduce the charge, or to discount an excessive balance bill, by showing the provider that his or her charge is above the typical market rate.

If neither the insurer nor the provider is willing to budge, do not be afraid to seek help. If you get your insurance through your employer, your human resources department may be able to intervene. Call your state representative or your local consumer protection office. With the right assistance, you might be able to reduce the bill, if not make it go away entirely.

Robin Gelburd, JD, is the president of FAIR Health, a national, independent nonprofit with the mission of bringing transparency to healthcare costs and insurance reimbursement. FAIR Health oversees the nation’s largest repository of private healthcare claims data, comprising over 21 billion billed medical and dental charges that reflect the claims experience of over 150 million privately insured Americans. Follow on twitter @FAIRHealth


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.