One of the biggest frustrations we have in the health care industry is due to patients not understanding their own health insurance benefits. Oftentimes, patients think that just because they carry insurance, that means that everything is covered and they don’t have to pay anything. Patients receive health care service and a month later they discover that their insurance doesn’t cover that particular service; however, instead of accepting the responsibility of paying, many patients fight, demand, and threaten the physician’s office staff to make the balance go away.

This phenomenon has gotten worse in the past twenty years or so. I subscribe to the theory that much of this mentality is due to the inception of HMO’s. In the beginning, HMO’s had either zero patient financial responsibility, or an exceptionally low out-of-pocket cost. People have been conditioned in thinking that health care is an entitlement. After about a decade, due to insurance companies (and employer groups) not being able to withstand the expense of higher utilization of “free” health care, they began to make the consumer more responsible by charging higher co-pays and not covering certain services. Unfortunately, most Americans expect the same Cadillac coverage without any additional expense (beyond their insurance premium and co-pay).

A major challenge in physician practices is to help their patient’s understand their insurance company’s reimbursement policies, all the while maintaining good will. Physicians are finding themselves having to develop various financial informed consent forms to assure that the patient understands that they may be responsible for some of the cost. Medicare has required this, in the form of Advanced Beneficiary Notices (ABN), for years.  Even so, we often hear patients state, “I signed it but didn’t read it.”  Or, “I was afraid if I didn’t sign it that I wouldn’t get the service.” Perhaps the days of accountability are long gone.

One of the biggest threats we hear from patients is that they will leave our practice if we don’t write off their balance. Not much that you can do about that. Health care is a business and we cannot pay the bills with altruism. In addition, it is fraud to bill the insurance company for services and write off the patient’s responsibility. Aside from financial hardship cases, routine adjustments of patient responsibility can get a physician excluded and/or fined by the government when it is a government program such as Medicare or Medicaid. Worst case scenario for commercial insurance is the insurance company dropping the physician from their network.

With lower reimbursements, practices really need to devote more energy in collecting all revenues due. The average overhead for a primary care physician practice is reaching 60%. There are no government subsidies for physicians, other than rural health care, community health care centers and native american health centers. More and more physicians are closing their offices, retiring early, selling their practices to hospitals, transitioning to concierge medicine, or going to cash only practices. This is devastating to primary care because of the physician shortage; however, many specialists are also getting hit hard as well.