Saturday, December 11, 2010

Cost-awareness anecdote: Sticker Shock (contest finalist)

The following story is from Dr. Grayson Wheatley, a cardiovascular surgeon from Phoenix, AZ

It was supposed to be a routine office visit for my patient. Unexpectedly, it turned into a real-world health economics lesson for me, the treating physician. The old adage “listen to your patients; they will always give you the answer” became exceedingly true in this case, even when it dealt with an issue beyond a medical diagnosis, such as lack of transparency regarding insurance coverage for medical procedures.

My patient had recently undergone an interventional procedure to treat severe peripheral vascular disease in order to improve his leg circulation. Usually, patients like him don’t seek treatment for vascular insufficiency until the discomfort associated with activity, or claudication, is severe enough to interfere with their regular rounds of golf. That is the real motivator for these patients. The procedure was a success and a few days following the procedure he was back to his normal activities and was pleased that his leg no longer bothered him as he motored around the golf course.

My patient calmly waited until after I checked his pulses, reviewed his medications and gave him a plan for follow-up before he expressed his real concern, and it certainly wasn’t about whether he could now get an extra 20 yards on his tee shot as a result of the new strength in his leg. Despite my office obtaining all the necessary private insurance pre-authorizations for the interventional procedure, he still had received a bill for approximately $10,000 related to out-of-network charges. I was baffled and my patient was disgruntled about this mix-up. After reviewing with him in the examination room the numerous sheets of paper he had received from his insurance company, it became clear what had happened.

A magical alignment of stars needs to occur for an elective procedure to be pre-approved. Emergency services are covered through a separate and more straightforward mechanism. First, the provider, or surgeon in this case, needs to be within the patient’s insurance network. Appropriate professional credentialing and outcome data are submitted to the insurance company, and if acceptable, the provider can participate in the company’s insurance plan. This tedious process needs to be repeated for every insurance plan in which the physician wants to participate. Second, appropriate medical record documentation needs to be submitted to the insurance company demonstrating medical necessity for the procedure. Third, the intended hospital where the procedure is being performed needs to be in-network, which is completely independent of the provider’s status.

Pre-authorizations in this patient’s case were obtained for both the surgeon’s fee and hospital charges. The particular anesthesiologist utilized for this patient’s procedure – a member of the medical team for which insurance companies don’t require pre-authorization – was out-of-network. It is not customary to obtain pre-authorization for anesthesiologists since almost always the anesthesiologist is in the same network as the physician and hospital. We assume, incorrectly, that if an anesthesiologist is working in an in-network hospital and with an in-network surgeon, that they also have in-network status.

The challenge in this process is the lack of transparency surrounding patient choice regarding anesthesiologist assignment, which is often made by the operating room staff moments before the procedure. Despite the anesthesiologist meeting the patient in the holding area before the procedure, no one informed the patient about his upcoming out-of-network charge related to anesthesia services or gave the patient an option to choose another anesthesiologist who was within his insurance’s network.

Fortunately, the out-of-network anesthesiologist worked with my patient to drastically reduce the cost of his services and they agreed upon a much more reasonable charge and associated payment plan. Subsequently, my office has modified the process to ensure that the anesthesiologist assigned to a patient’s procedure is pre-authorized.

This patient’s case was an eye-opening experience for me and helped me better understand the complex maze of healthcare reimbursement. It also enabled me to see things more clearly from my patient’s perspective. I am thankful that this patient took the time to speak-up and share his financial situation with me. How many other patients have I operated on were put in this situation and suffered financially in silence? I have always prided myself on making sure my patients have a thorough understanding of their disease and upcoming procedure. Now, I take the time to make sure they also have a clear understanding of the reimbursement process. As a physician, it is not enough to relieve the physical pain of a medical problem, it is also our responsibility to help patients avoid preventable financial jeopardy.


  1. "As a physician, it is not enough to relieve the physical pain of a medical problem, it is also our responsibility to help patients avoid preventable financial jeopardy."
    Don't I know the pain of a patient after being stuck with the bill that the insurance had agreed to pay for 80% of a dental surgery. Now pt has to pay the full amount!
    It's a shame & patients are under the impression that insurance company is on their side!

  2. After giving birth to my second child, I received a large bill from my insurance for my epidural. My anesthesiologist was "out of network". Can you imagine! The expectation that while in the depths of labor, I was expected to rationally inquire as to the coverage of the person pumping the medicine into my spine to take away the unbearable pain? It was laughable.