Readers and Tweeters Decry Medical Billing Errors, Price-Gouging, and Barriers to Benefits
Letters to the Editor is a periodic feature. We welcome all comments and will publish a selection. We edit for length and clarity and require full names.
— Dr. Raghu Venugopal, Toronto
A Plea for Sane Prices
I just read your story about the emergency room billing for a procedure that was not done (“A Billing Expert Saved Big After Finding an Incorrect Charge in Her Husband’s ER Bill,” Oct. 25). We too had a similar experience with an emergency room and a broken arm that was coded at a Level 5, and it was a simple break. No surgery needed, and it took them only 10 minutes to set and wrap the broken arm but charged us over $9,000. I disputed the charges, and it took six months to get them to reduce the bill but they never admitted that they coded a simple break incorrectly to jack up the price of the bill. If it had been a Level 5 issue, we would not have sat in the waiting room for six hours before being seen. It was a horrible experience, and I think ERs all over the nation are doing this to make up for the non-payers they treat every day. It is robbery.
— Terrence Campbell, Pocatello, Idaho
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— Ed Gaines, Greensboro, North Carolina
As you said, CPT codes should always be examined. This case is probably more than “just an error.” As a retired orthopedic surgeon, chief of surgery, and chief of staff at a North Carolina hospital, I have seen care such as this coded exactly like this with the rationale that, “Hey, this was a fractured humerus and it was manipulated and splinted.” 24505 is correct IF that is the definitive treatment, which it was not here. Even code 24500 would indicate definitive treatment without manipulation. This was just temporary care until definitive care could be done later. It should be billed as a visit and a splint. The visit for this, if it was an isolated problem (no other injury or problems), would qualify only as a Level 2 visit. That frequently gets upcoded as well by adding a lot of non-pertinent family, medical, and social history and a complete physical exam (seven systems at least) and a whole lot of non-pertinent “medical decision making.” All of that should be documented in the medical records even if the hospital stonewalls on the CPT codes.
Look closely at medical records and you will find frequent upcoding, if you are familiar with the requirements for different levels of treatment.
— Dr. Charles Beemer, Arvada, Colorado
— Shashank Bhat, San Francisco
A number of years ago, I was billed using a code that described a treatment that was not carried out. In similar fashion, I talked with my insurance company, which basically said it did not care whether the treatment took place or not as all it required was for a valid code to appear. I also contacted the Virginia Bureau of Insurance, which approves the various policies, and it said it had no jurisdiction over claims. I decided to let the hospital sue me for the disputed amount and defended myself in district court. Despite their attorney and four “witnesses,” the case was thrown out because the hospital was both unwilling and unable to justify the charges to the satisfaction of the judge. They did not want anybody in power to testify because of the questions they would have been asked, so they left it to people who were completely clueless. The takeaways from this were:
- Hospitals make up the numbers and leave them grossly inflated so they can claim that they are giving away care when they give discounts on the made-up numbers.
- Hospitals turn employees into separate billing entities so they can double-charge.
- Hospitals open facilities such as physical therapy in hospital locations because insurance companies will pay higher amounts when treatment is carried out in a hospital environment.
- Insurance companies and state insurance agencies do not act as gatekeepers to protect their clients/taxpayers.
- The insurance companies and the providers have a shared interest in the highest possible ticket prices and outrageous charges because the providers get to claim how generous they are with “unremunerated care,” and if the prices were affordable then they could not justify the high prices for insurance premiums and the allowed administration/profit share of 20% would be based on a far smaller amount.
In any other industry, this would have resulted in multiple antitrust suits. U.S. health care is a sad example of government, health care industry, and insurers all coming together against the interests of consumers. After this court case, I wanted to form a nonprofit to systematically challenge every outrageous charge against people who, unlike myself, did not believe or know how to defend themselves. If hospitals and other providers were forced to go to court to justify their charges on a systematic basis, pricing sanity would eventually prevail.
— Philip Solomon, Richmond, Virginia
— Barry Ritholtz, New York City
Patients as Watchdogs
Thank you for the article on Lupron Depot injections (Bill of the Month: “$38,398 for a Single Shot of a Very Old Cancer Drug,” Oct. 26). Last year, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, though my case is not anywhere as severe as that experienced by Mr. Hinds.
Last month my urologist scheduled an MRI update for me at a facility owned by Northside Hospital Atlanta. At the suggestion of my beloved wife, I called my insurance company, UnitedHealthcare, to make sure the procedure was covered. Fortunately, it was. That being said, the agent from UnitedHealthcare mentioned that Northside Hospital’s fee was “quite a bit higher than the average for your area.” It was. Before insurance, the charge for an MRI at Northside was $6,291. I canceled the appointment at Northside and had the MRI done by a free-standing facility. Their charge, before insurance, was $1,234.
Every single encounter that I have with the health care system involves constant vigilance against price-gouging. When I have a procedure, I have to make sure that the facility is in-network,. that each physician is in-network, that any attending specialist such as an anesthesiologist or radiologist is in-network (and their base-facility as well). If I have a blood test, I have to double-check if the cost is included in a procedure or if it is separate. If it is a separate fee, I have to ensure that the analysis is also covered, and, if it is not, that it is not done through a hospital-owned facility but instead through a free-standing operation.
I have several ongoing conditions in addition to my prostate cancer — Dupuytren’s contracture, a rare bleeding disorder similar to thrombocytopenia, and arthritis. Needless to say, navigating our byzantine, inefficient, and profit-driven health care system is a total nightmare.
Health care in the United States has become so exceedingly outrageous. I cannot understand why it is not an issue that surfaces during election years or something that Congress is willing to address.
Again, thank you for your excellent reporting.
— Karl D. Lehman, Atlanta
— Brian Murphy, Austin, Texas
I was a medical stop-loss underwriter and marketer for over 30 years. Most larger (company plans for 100-plus employees) are self-funded, meaning the carrier — as in this case, UnitedHealthcare — is supplying the administrative functions and network access for a fee, while using the employer’s money to pay claims.
Every administrator out there charges a case management fee, either as a stand-alone charge or buried in their fees. Either way, they all tout how they are looking out for both the employer and the patient.
Even if this plan was fully insured, wouldn’t it have been in the best interest of all parties when they became aware of the patient’s treatment (maybe after the first payment) to reach out to the patient and let them know there are other alternatives?
The question in these cases is who is minding the store for both the patient and the employer. The employer, the insurer, and the patient could have all saved a lot of money and pain, if someone from case management had actually questioned the first set of charges.
— Fred Burkacki, Sarasota, Florida
— Amanda Oglesby, Neptune, New Jersey
‘Bill of the Month’ Pays Off
I received a $1,075 refund on a colonoscopy bill I paid months earlier after listening to the KHN-NPR “Bill of the Month” segment “Her First Colonoscopy Cost Her $0. Her Second Cost $2,185. Why?” (May 31) and finding out the procedure should be covered under routine health care coverage. Thank you!
— Cynthia McBride, University Place, Washington
— Erica Warner, Boston
Removing Barriers to Benefits
In the story “People With Long Covid Face Barriers to Government Disability Benefits” (Nov. 9), you stated: “Many people with long covid don’t have the financial resources to hire a lawyer.” This is incorrect. When applying for disability, you don’t need financial resources. There are law firms that specialize in disability claims and will not charge you until you win your claim. And, according to federal law, those law firms can charge only a certain percentage of the back pay you would get once the claim has been won. Also, if you lose the claim, and the law firm has appealed as many times as possible, you don’t owe anything. Please don’t make it more difficult for those who are disabled with misinformation.
— Lorrie Crabtree, Los Angeles
— Ron Chusid, Muskegon, Michigan
Vaccine Injuries Deserve Attention, Too
I read your long-covid article with interest because many of the barriers and some of the symptoms faced by people with long covid are similar to those experienced by people with vaccine injuries. I’m really concerned about how there is even less attention and support for people who suffered adverse vaccine reactions.
Long covid and vaccine injuries are both issues of justice, mercy, and human rights as much as they are a range of complex medical conditions.
It’s nearly 20 months since someone I know sustained a serious adverse reaction, and it is heartbreaking how hard it has been for her to find doctors who will acknowledge what happened and try to help. There’s no medical or financial support from our government, and the Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program is truly a dead end, even as other countries such as Thailand, Australia, and the United Kingdom have begun to acknowledge and financially support people who sustained vaccine injuries.
I’ve contacted my congressional representatives dozens of times asking for help and sharing research papers about vaccine injuries, but they have declined to respond in meaningful ways. Similarly, my state-level representatives ignore questions about our vaccine mandate, which remains in place for state employees, despite at least one confirmed vaccine-caused fatality in a young mother who fell under the state mandate in order to volunteer at school.
There have been a few articles, such as …
- Why Is It So Hard to Compensate People for Serious Vaccine Side Effects?
- Feds Pay Zero Claims for Covid-19 Vaccine Injuries/Deaths
- Covid Vaccine Injury Plaintiffs Face Long Odds in U.S. Compensation Program
- Covid-19: Is the US Compensation Scheme for Vaccine Injuries Fit for Purpose?
… but no new ones have come to my attention recently, and it is concerning that the media and our political and public health leaders seem OK with leaving people behind as collateral damage.
Please consider writing a companion piece to highlight this need and the lack of a functional safety net or merciful response. My hope is that if long covid and vaccine injuries were both studied vigorously, new understanding would lead to therapeutics and treatments to help these people.
— Kathy Zelenka, Port Angeles, Washington
— Matthew Guldin, West Chester, Pennsylvania
More on Mammograms
The article “Despite Katie Couric’s Advice, Doctors Say Ultrasound Breast Exams May Not Be Needed” (Oct. 28) does a disservice to women and can cause harm. An ultrasound is saving my life. I had two mammograms with ultrasounds this year. Although the first mammogram showed one cyst that was diagnosed as “maybe benign,” I knew it wasn’t. Why? Because I could feel the difference. I insisted on a second, and sure enough a large-enough cyst that’s definitely malignant was found. I had breast surgery on Oct. 31, followed by radiation treatment and, if needed, chemotherapy later. This article will deprive other, less aggressive and experienced women who do not have health care credentials or a radiologist for a husband to be harmed by being lulled into complacency.
— Digna Irizarry Cassens, Yucca Valley, California
— Patricia Clark, Scottsdale, Arizona
Your article on breast cancer screening neglected to present the supplemental option of Abbreviated Breast MRI (AB-MRI). The out-of-pocket cost at many clinics ranges from $250 to $500. For a national listing of clinics that offer this supplemental screening option, please go to https://timetobeseen.org/self-pay-ab-mri. For benefits, just Google “Abbreviated Breast MRI.”
— Elsie Spry, Wexford, Pennsylvania
— Donald H. Polite, Milwaukee
Preparation Plans for Seniors: All for One and One for All
At least 120 people died from Hurricane Ian, two-thirds of whom were 60 or older. This is a tragedy among our most vulnerable population that should have been prevented (“Hurricane Ian’s Deadly Impact on Florida Seniors Exposes Need for New Preparation Strategies,” Nov. 2).
Yes, coming together and developing preparedness plans is one way to protect seniors and avoid these kinds of tragedies in the future, but since this is not a one-size-fits-all situation, organizations that help seniors across the country must first look internally and be held accountable by making sure their teams always have a plan in place and are prepared to activate them at a moment’s notice.
During Hurricane Ian, I saw firsthand what can happen when teamwork and effective planning come together successfully to protect and prepare seniors with chronic health conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease who require supplemental oxygen to breathe.
Home respiratory care providers and home oxygen suppliers worked tirelessly to ensure our patients received plenty of supplies to sustain them throughout the storm, and when some patients faced situations where their oxygen equipment wasn’t working properly inside their homes, staff members were readily available to calmly talk the patient through fixing the problem. After the winds receded, mobile vans were quickly stationed in safe spaces for patients or their family members to access the oxygen tanks and supplies they needed. If patients were unable to make it to these locations, staff members were dispatched to deliver tanks to their homes personally and check in on the patient.
Patients were also tracked down at shelters, and a team of volunteers was formed around the country to find patients who could not be reached by calling their emergency backup contacts, a friend, or family member. Through these established systems, we were able to remain in contact with all of our patients in Ian’s path to ensure their care was not impeded by the storm.
Organizations should always be ready and held accountable for the seniors they care for in times of disaster. I know my team will be ready. Will yours?
— Crispin Teufel, CEO of Lincare, Clearwater, Florida
— Ashley Moore, San Francisco
The Tall and the Short of BMI
I am amazed that in your article about BMI (“BMI: The Mismeasure of Weight and the Mistreatment of Obesity,” Oct. 12) you never mentioned anything about the loss of height. If a person goes from 5-foot-2 to 4-foot-10, the BMI changes significantly.
— Sue Robinson, Hanover, Pennsylvania
— Steve Clark, Lee’s Summit, Missouri
Caring for Nurses’ Mental Health
During the pandemic, when I read stories about how brave and selfless health care heroes were fighting covid-19, I wondered who was taking care of them and how they were processing those events. They put their own lives on the line treating patients and serving their communities, but how were these experiences affecting them? I am a mother of a nurse who was on the front lines. I constantly worried about her as well as her mental and physical well-being (“Employers Are Concerned About Covering Workers’ Mental Health Needs, Survey Finds,” Oct. 27). I was determined to find a way to honor and support her and her colleagues around the country.
I created a large collaborative art project called “The Together While Apart Project” that included the artwork of 18 other artists from around the United States. It originated during the lockdown phase of the pandemic, a time when we were all physically separated yet joined by a collective mission to create one amazing art installation to honor front-line workers, especially nurses. Upon its completion, this collaboration was recognized by the Smithsonian Institute, Channel Kindness (a nonprofit co-founded by Lady Gaga) and NOAH (National Organization of Arts in Medicine). After traveling around the Southeast to various hospitals for the past year on temporary exhibit, the artwork now hangs permanently in the main lobby at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, Virginia.
I wanted to do something philanthropic with this art project to honor and thank health care heroes for their dedication over the past two years. It was important to find a way to help support them and to ensure they are not being forgotten. Using art project as my platform, I partnered with the American Nurses Association and created a fundraiser. This campaign raises money for the ANA’s Well-Being Initiative programs, which support nurses struggling from burnout and post-traumatic stress disorder and who desperately need mental and physical wellness care. Fighting covid has taken a major toll on too many nurses. Some feel dehumanized and are not receiving the time off or the mental and physical resources needed to sustain them. Many are suffering in silence and have to choose between caring for themselves or their patients. They should not have to make this choice. Nurses are the lifeline in our communities and the backbone of the health care industry. When they suffer, we all suffer. Whether they work in hospitals, doctors’ offices, assisted living facilities, clinics or schools, every nurse has been negatively impacted in some way by the pandemic. They are being asked to do so much more than their jobs require in addition to experiencing greater health risks, less pay, and longer hours. Nurses under 35 and those of color are struggling in larger numbers.
The American Nurses Foundation offers many forms of wellness care at no charge. They rely heavily on donations to maintain the quality of their offerings as well as the ability to provide services to a growing number of nurses. I am an artist, not a professional fundraiser, and I have never raised money before. But I feel so strongly about ensuring that nurses receive the support and care they deserve, that I am willing to do whatever it takes to advocate and elevate these health care heroes.
The Together While Apart Project’s “Thank You Nurses Campaign” goal is $20,200, an amount chosen to reflect the numbers 2020, the year nurses became daily heroes. So far, I have raised over $15,500 through gifts in all amounts. For example, a $20 donation provides a nurse with a free one-hour call with a mental health specialist. That $20 alone makes a big difference and can change the life of one nurse for the better. The campaign has provided enough funding (year to date) to enable 940 nurses to receive free one-hour wellness calls with mental health specialists.
The online fundraiser can be found at https://givetonursing.networkforgood.com/projects/159204-together-while-apart-fundraiser.
— Deane Bowers, Seabrook Island, South Carolina
— Employee Assistance Professionals Association, Arlington, Virginia
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