Saturday, April 18, 2009


Last January I finally got around to getting my annual physical. Same story…in terms of overall health, I’m among the top 5% of all men my age. Other than an occasional bout of labile, stress-related blood pressure, I am in great shape. That was good news, until I checked the mail in February and found a bill for $500 from the lab that processed the blood test that confirmed my excellent health. I immediately called Employee Benefits at my college to make sure that our new health insurance covers “blood tests.” She confirmed that lab tests are covered, and explained that there is often lag time in communication between the insurance companies and providers. In short: "not to worry!"So I ignored the bill. But I kept getting more of them. So I called our family doctor’s office and asked the receptionist what she thought had happened. She had no idea. But she was sure that she had forwarded my insurance information to the laboratory. Then a few days later, I received an automated phone message from a collection agency in regard to an overdue account that belonged to “Ronald Wade.” Of course, I am “Ronald White,” so I hung up. Then it called again, and, again, etc. So I called my insurance company to check up on the status of that mysterious bill. After waiting on hold for 10 minutes, I spoke to an agent that determined that the laboratory never submitted a $500 claim, but that my physician’s bill had already been paid-in-full. Then, I decided that I’d better contact the laboratory. The bill stated that I should use the company website. I quickly confirmed that I owed $500, and I was urged to pay off the account by credit card. After about 30 minutes of searching the website, I found a phone number. I called it and I was immediately captured by one of those endless option loops. Finally, after optioning for 20 minutes, I stumbled upon the option that I wanted: “speak to a customer service representative.” Elated, I pressed option #4 and hit the “pound key.” “We’re sorry, but all of our representatives are busy assisting other customers. Please wait for the next available representative.” Then I was treated to 30 minutes of soft rock, interrupted every 2 minutes by an automated female voice urging me to remain on the line. Finally, a company representative with an Indian accent asked me how he could assist me. I read off my 14 digit patient code and he pulled up my file. Sure enough, I owed $500 to the laboratory. I explained that I had health insurance and that the insurance company had no record of the lab submitting a claim and that my physician had forwarded the insurance information to the lab. Perplexed, he read off a 17 digit insurance number and asked me if it corresponded to the one on my insurance card. It didn’t match! It had two wrong digits. He immediately corrected the typos and told me that he would resubmit the claim with the correct number. Then I politely asked him why the laboratory didn’t contact the insurance company, or the doctor's office; and how the lab could reasonably expect me to figure out that someone at the lab miscopied a 17 digit insurance number? He couldn’t answer! Then, I respectfully complained to him about the endless loops on the website and phone system. He responded: “We’ve had many complaints about our website and phone systems.” So what’s wrong with our health care system? Well, we have a four-party system: first party patients, second party providers (physicians, labs, drug companies etc.), third party payers (private insurance companies, Medicare, Medicaid etc), and fourth party insurance payers (employers that purchase health insurance for their employees.) Can you imagine a more convoluted way to provide an annual physical? Wait a minute, I have to answer the phone…I’m back! That was that pesky collection agency again. Let’s make that a five-party system. Whew! I’m sure glad I’m healthy: even if my blood pressure is now 150/90. Check out my forthcoming essay (co-authored by Charles Kroncke) on our four-party health care system system. It will appear in the summer issue of the Independent Review.

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