Whose Bait and Switch? We all need fair play in health care.


When I was a resident my “mentors” did what most physicians do:  they taught me how to write-up preventive screening procedures as diagnostic or therapeutic ones so that they (and the patients) could get reimbursed by insurers.  So, a screening mammogram to detect early breast cancer, which wasn’t covered in the 1970s and 1980s in most insurance contracts, was written as “mass, rule-out cancer” or a screening resting EKG (which we now know is of little value) was recorded as “chest pain, rule-out ischemic heart disease.”

Surveys of physicians done by reputable researchers in the late 1980s and repeated in the late 1990s/early 2000s showed many physicians knowingly coded screening procedures fraudulently (see for example JAMA 1989;261(20):2980-85; JAMA 2000;283(14):1858-1865).  In the 1989 survey the researchers found that,

The majority [of physicians] indicated a willingness to misrepresent a screening test as a diagnostic test to secure an insurance payment…Most physicians indicated a willingness to engage in deception in some circumstances, justifying their decisions in terms of the consequences and placing a higher value on patient welfare and keeping confidences than on truth telling.

In the 2000 article, Wynia, et. al. concluded that:

A sizable minority of physicians report manipulating reimbursement rules so patients can receive care that physicians perceive is necessary.

Now the tables have turned.  The health reform act (known as the Accountable Care Act, or ObamaCare) has a provision that requires prevention procedures to be covered at 100% without a co-pay or deductible.

Secondary prevention is the use of screening procedures like colonoscopy to detect existing disease before it has signs or symptoms (see Prevention vs. Treatment:  What’s the Right Balance? pages 12-13 for more details). This preventive screening procedure means that something is being done without a suspicion of existing irregularity –  cholesterol is being checked to see if it is abnormal (not because it’s been abnormal and the patient wants to see if treatment has brought it down), or a colonoscopy is being done when there are no symptoms or signs that would suspect colon cancer (not because of an already established positive blood stool test, or presence of previous polyps, or prior diagnosis of colon cancer).

So physicians can get rid of their deceptive practices of old and request the procedure for what it is.  Let’s hear it for the system now encouraging moral integrity for physicians!  At least given old practices.

Covering new benefits, of course, costs more money for insurance plans, which will have to raise premiums to cover these new benefits.  If the actuaries for insurers haven’t already raised the premiums (or requested raises, which the state insurance commissioners may have nixed or reduced), then no pity on them – they had fair warning.  But presumably they have factored these newly covered benefits into their premiums, so now, as reported by the AP (see here), they are simply gaming the system the way physicians have for years.

In my experience in the health insurance industry in the 1980s and early 1990s we found many physicians gaming the system in many ways – up-coding procedures, mis-coding procedures, splitting (unbundling) what should have been bundled procedures, mis-dating follow-ups so they didn’t look as if they were for bundled payments, etc.  At the same time, reputable insurers tried to administer health insurance contracts quickly and fairly.  At Aetna, where I was medical director of the claims department, we prided ourselves on clearing claims very rapidly.  Where there were questions, we attempted to review and adjudicate the claim as soon as information was received to clarify the questions.  98-99% of all claims were paid without question.  But on a claims base of millions a day, 1-2% would still kick out >1500/ day.  Not all of these were medical issues, sometimes they were contractual benefits or eligibility ones which were handled by other departments.

Certainly we heard of irreputable insurers in the business, looking for ways not to pay claims.  But that wasn’t our culture.  I’ve been out of the health insurance business for 21 years, so things may have changed.  (OK, please don’t write in about your individual claim problem.  We’ve all had disappointments with one or more claims if we’ve lived long enough and submitted enough claims to health insurers.)

I’m not trying to be an apologist for insurers – I know they can be frustrating and difficult to deal with sometimes.  And certainly what they are doing now – changing the definition of a screening procedure to a diagnostic one because of findings from a screening procedure – seems deceitful.

My advice to individuals who experience this is to be sure that (a) your physician writes clearly that the requested procedure is for screening, (b) the screening requested is clearly within the guidelines of the US Preventive Services Task Force A or B recommendations, (c) you be vocal and proactive in talking with the insurer and provider in advance, and (d) if you get a billing surprise, appeal the decision as many times and layers as necessary.

So while the patient is asking for fair play from the insurer, at the same time the insurer is asking for fair play from the doctor and patient – don’t misrepresent the purpose of the test as screening if indeed it is diagnostic because of pre-existing symptoms or signs.  In that case the bait and switch isn’t the insurer’s fault, but the patient’s and doctor’s.  We all need fair play – honesty, not manipulation – in health care.

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