The Games Health Insurers Play

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If dealing with a health issue isn’t bad enough, negotiating the maze of insurance red tape compounds the difficulty. Authorizations need to be obtained, the approved services must be used within the time frames given, and the billing has to match what was approved. Throw in where you stand with your annual deductible, what your co-insurance amounts are, whether you are in or out of network, and how many providers are involved in the process that will submit claims, and you can feel like a cop directing traffic at a congested intersection during rush hour.

Having said that, performing your due diligence sometimes does not provide the results you expect, and your are left scrambling in an attempt to make things right. To prove my point, I will share a personal experience that represents a textbook example¬†of a case so blatantly egregious, that it illustrates why the health insurance industry has earned the public’s scorn. It also reinforces all their negative stereotypes you may have heard or assumed.

Three years or so ago, my progression started to accelerate, and my neurologist ordered three plasma transfers (apheresis) over a two week period to see if it would help. My results were dramatic. The symptoms that had climbed into my knee for the very first time, were alleviated and pushed back to where they were before the flare. We therefore decided to make the plasma transfers a part of my monthly routine.

So the authorization process began, which was a simple formality. After all, apheresis was long considered part of the MS therapy protocol, and I had just finished the three procedures Anthem had authorized a few weeks earlier.

My neurologist submitted the order, and two weeks later I received the written notification from Anthem’s Utilization Review department that the request had been approved, but I could see there was a problem. Only one procedure was approved, so a mistake had obviously been made in the authorization process because the approval was supposed to cover a twelve month span. I called the hospital to alert them, and received an apology and a promise to resubmit the request right away.

Several days later, I saw an insurance update flash across my work e-mail indicating that some insurer, I think it might have been Aetna, no longer considered Plasma Apheresis a medically necessary procedure for MS. Ten days after that, I received another notification from Anthem.

This letter informed me that my request for authorization was denied because the procedure was considered experimental and not medically necessary for my condition. Keep in mind that the letter I had received less than two weeks earlier had approved the procedure, stating it was medically necessary, among other things that this new letter similarly contradicted.

I laid the two documents side by side, one dated August 2nd and the other August 14th, and looked at them with disgust. They were polar opposites, and I instantly understood that Anthem had followed the other insurer’s lead.

Even for someone like me, who had worked in the healthcare revenue cycle/accounts receivable arena for decades, this represented a WTF moment. I had witnessed stuff like this happening to others in my career, but I was the victim now, and it did not feel good. The irony was laughable, but I was still royally pissed. I also knew Anthem wasn’t playing games. This was truly their decision, all because another insurer took that position, and it gave them political and ethical cover.

I appealed indirectly with my employer, which has a self-funded plan with Anthem and covers thousands of employees, but that never bore fruit. If I didn’t have the benefit of my work experiences, my next step probably would have been to call and complain, then have my neurologist appeal the decision, but I’m sure the answer still would have been tough-titty, and I’d be left high and dry.

However, I recalled that the State of Connecticut has something called the Office of the Healthcare Advocate whose mission is to help people in the state either find healthcare or help them with issues relating to their coverage. I knew this because I had their chief speak on two occasions at programs of a trade group I was president of at the time.

I believed my situation was a slam-dunk in terms of getting the decision reversed. After all, I had two written documents, issued within a two week span, the first of which said the request was appropriate, followed by the second that said it wasn’t. I wanted Anthem to explain and justify the the rationale of their decision, but needed the political muscle to force that issue. The Advocate agreed and referred me to one of their agents, whom I called. While this individual was professional enough to not laugh out loud when I explained what happened, I could sense them rolling their eyes and shaking their heads on the other end of the phone. At the agent’s request I sent him a summary of the events and copies of both letters, then sat back and let him do his job.

Wouldn’t you know it? I received a letter from Anthem approving twelve procedures over a span of twelve months, but it took two months after that initial call to receive it. I never did get an explanation for why they denied the services in the first place, or an apology, but honestly did not expect one. I was just happy that this bullshit was over, and I could receive the treatments.

This reversal did not represent a change in their policy, however. They simply made made an exception in my case. For all I knew, anyone requesting similar services from them would get the same denial I received. But if I remember correctly Anthem reversed this policy a year or two later, and I haven’t had an issue getting the services authorized since.

A health insurer’s first priority is to make money, the second is to pay claims. Never question that for a second. The moral of this story therefore is that you have to be extremely diligent when it comes to health insurance coverage. You must dot all your I’s and cross all your T’s, and even then things still can go wrong.

Services that were approved can be still be denied, or paid incorrectly after you’ve done all the right things. Claims can be paid and the payment can be withdrawn months or even years later.

You have to be an expert at your policy’s coverage terms, and your avenues of recourse if you have an issue you think you shouldn’t, because it could cost you money or a denial of services if your don’t.

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I can see how you might think I’m being overly dramatic. It is true that I’ve been in this industry for a long time, have had many tussles with all the major insurers over coverage, denials and how claims are (or aren’t) paid. I admit my perspective is biased, but that biased has been well-deserved. Nonetheless, I will leave you with this anecdote.

A number of years ago, we had someone talk about about insurance denials, and strategies to prevent, combat and pursue them, at a program for the trade group I mentioned earlier. Before he started his own company designed to help providers set up a denial mitigation process, he worked for one of the major insurers. I don’t remember what his exact title was at that company, but it was a Director level position of the regional unit that processed their medical claims. During the presentation, he casually mentioned that his division had denial quotas. In other words, part of his unit’s success was determined by the percentage and/or dollar amount of the claims received that were denied.

When the presentation was over, I walked up to him during a break to chat, and asked him what they did if their projections showed their denial target wasn’t going to met. He simply smiled, raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders. While he never spoke these words, the message was clear: claims were denied inappropriately at some point in time, whether it be each month, each quarter or fiscal year end, so the goal would be achieved.

That makes perfect sense to me, because the truth is many hospitals send out tens of thousands of bills a month, and it is impossible to keep track of what happens with every single one. Those who are on the ball have a unit or software in place to catch and escalate inappropriate denials so they don’t slip through the cracks, but not everyone is on the ball, and while it should not happen, sometimes the patient winds up with the bill.

Keep in mind as well that while these scenarios sound common place, they occur only a small percentage of the time. When you submit hundreds of thousands of claims each year however, a small percentage seems like a lot. Nonetheless, as small as this percentage might be compared to the total, you don’t want to be the unlucky person who is sucked into this¬†dark underbelly of the claim adjudication process.

Everyone is entitled to have access to the treatment that is governed by the terms and conditions of their policy, and not pay a penny more than required. You therefore need to pay attention and be diligent. Read your insurance explanation of benefits (EOBs). Read all the communications and bills you receive. Understand your policy and its coverage. Don’t assume or ignore anything.

Don’t be a pawn in the game of healthcare roulette.