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Getting Insurance To Pay For Preventive Health Under The ACA

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) mandates that health insurance companies pay for preventive health visits. However, that term is somewhat deceptive, as consumers may feel they can visit the doctor for just a general checkup, talk about anything, and the visit will be paid 100% with no copay. In fact, some, and perhaps most, health insurance companies only cover the A and B recommendations of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. These recommendations cover such topics as providing counseling on smoking cessation, alcohol abuse, obesity, and tests for blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes (for at risk patients), and some cancer screening physical exams. BUT if a patient mentions casually that he or she is feeling generally fatigued, the doctor could write down a diagnosis related to that fatigue and effectively transform the “wellness visit” into a “sick visit.” The same is true if the patient mentions occasional sleeplessness, upset stomach, stress, headaches, or any other medical condition. In order to get the “free preventive health” visit paid for 100%, the visit needs to be confined to a very narrow group of topics that most people will find vert constrained.

Similarly, the ACA calls for insurance companies to pay for preventive colonoscopy screenings for colon cancer. However, once again there is a catch. If the doctor finds any kind of problem during the colonoscopy and writes down a diagnosis code other than “routine preventive health screening,” the insurance company may not, and probably will not, pay for the colonoscopy directly. Instead, the costs would be applied to the annual deductible, which means most patients would get stuck paying for the cost of the screening.

This latter possibility frustrates the intention of the ACA. The law was written to encourage everyone – those at risk as well as those facing no known risk – to get checked. But if people go into the procedure expecting insurance to pay the cost, and then a week later receive a surprise letter indicating they are responsible for the $2,000 – $2,500 cost, it will give people a strong financial disincentive to getting tested.

As an attorney, I wonder how the law could get twisted around to this extent. The purpose of a colonoscopy is determined at the moment an appointment is made, not ex post facto during or after the colonoscopy. If the patient has no symptoms and is simply getting a colonoscopy to screen for colon cancer because the patient has reached age 45 or 50 or 55, then that purpose or intent cannot be negated by subsequent findings of any condition. What if the doctor finds a minor noncancerous infection and notes that on the claim form? Will that diagnosis void the 100% payment for preventive service? If so, it gives patients a strong incentive to tell their GI doctors that they are only to note on the claim form “yes or no” in response to colon cancer and nothing else. Normally, we would want to encourage doctors to share all information with patients, and the patients would want that as well. But securing payment for preventive services requires the doctor code up the entire procedure as routine preventive screening.

The question is how do consumers inform the government of the need for a special coding or otherwise provide guidance on preventive screening based on intent at time of service, not on subsequent findings? I could write my local congressman, but he is a newly elected conservative Republican who opposes health care and everything else proposed by Obama. If I wrote him on the need for clarification of preventive health visits, he would interpret that as a letter advising him to vote against health care reform at every opportunity. I doubt my two conservative Republican senators would be any different. They have stand pat reply letters on health care reform that they send to all constituents who write in regarding health care matters.

To my knowledge, there is no way to make effective suggestions to the Obama administration. Perhaps the only solution is to publicize the problem in articles and raise these issues in discussion forums

There is a clear and absolute need for government to get involved in the health care sector. You seem to forget how upset people were with the non-government, pure private sector-based health care system that left 49 million Americans uninsured. When those facts are mentioned to people abroad, they think of America as having a Third World type health care system. Few Japanese, Canadians, or Europeans would trade their existing health care coverage for what they perceive as the gross inequities in the US Health Care System.

The Affordable Care Act, I agree, completely fails to address the fundamental cost driver of health care. For example, it perpetuates and even exacerbates the tendency of consumers to purchase health services without any regard to price. Efficiency in private markets requires cost-conscious consumers; we don’t have that in health care.

I am glad the ACA was passed. It is a step in the right direction. As noted, there are problems with the ACA including the “preventive health visits” to the doctor, which are supposed to be covered 100% by insurance but may not be if any diagnostic code is entered on the claim form.

Congress is so polarized on health care that the only way to get changes is with a groundswell of popular support. I don’t think a letter writing campaign is the correct way to reform payment for the “preventive health visits.” If enough consumers advise their doctors that this particular visit is to be treated solely as a preventive health visit, and they will not pay for any service in the event the doctor’s office miscodes the visit with anything else, then the medical establishment will take notice and use its lobbying arm to make Congress aware of the problem.

COMMENT: Should there not be an agreement up front between both parties on what actions that will be taken if said item is found or said event should be seen or occur? Should their be a box on the pre-surgical form giving the patient the right to denying the doctor to take proper action (deemed by whom?) if they see a need to? Checking this box would save the patient the cost of the procedure, and give them time for a consult. If there is not a box to check, why isn’t there one?

There are two separate questions posed by the checkbox election for procedures. First, does a patient have a legal right to check such a box or instruct a physician/surgeon orally or in writing that he does not give consent for that procedure to be performed? The answer to that question is yes.

The second question is does it serve the economic interest of the patient to check that box? For the colonoscopy, in theory the patient would get his or her free preventive screening, but then be told the patient needs to schedule a second colonoscopy for removal of a suspicious polyp. In that case, the patient would eventually have to pay for a colonoscopy out of pocket (unless he had already met his yearly deductible), so there is no clear economic rationale for denying the physician the right to remove the polyp during the screening colonoscopy.

But we are using the much less common colonoscopy example. Instead, let’s return to preventive care with a primary care doctor. Should a patient have the right to check a box and say “I want this visit to cover routine preventive care and nothing more”? Certainly. There is way too much discretion afforded physicians to code up whatever they want on claim forms such that two physicians seeing the exact same patient might code up different procedures and diagnostics for the exact same preventive health screening visit.

When I expect to receive a “zero cost to me” preventive screening, I do not imply that I am willing to accept a “bait and switch” change of procedure and payment due to the doctor from me. The “zero cost to me” induces consumers to go to the office visit; it is actually paid for out of the profits earned by the health insurance firms to whom consumers pay monthly premiums. Consumers need to hold doctors financially accountable for their claim billing practices. If you are quoted a “zero price” for a visit, the doctor’s office better honor that price, or it amounts to fraud.

It is all too easy to find any little old thing to justify billing a patient for a sick visit instead of a wellness visit. However, it is up to the patient to prevent that kind of profiteering at his or her expense.

It would be wonderful if HHS would give carriers the proper code or specify that other diagnostic codes cannot negate the preventive screening code used for a wellness visit. That is not happening now. DHS has been bombarded with so many questions and suggestions for health care reform that the department has a fortress like mentality. So realistically, consumers cannot expect DHS to address the coding issue for preventive health screenings any time soon. That leaves the full burden to fall on each consumer to ensure the doctor’s billing practices match the patient’s expectations for a free preventive health office visit.