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.
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 very constrained. 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 they are generally feeling 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 other medical conditions.
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 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 and those facing no known risk – to get checked. But if people go into the procedure expecting insurance to pay the cost. Then a week later, they 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 when an appointment is made, not ex-posts 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 to code up the entire procedure as the routine preventive screening.
The question is, how do consumers inform the government of the need for special coding or otherwise provide guidance on preventive screening based on intent at the 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 the 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. I agree that the Affordable Care Act 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 correct 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 upfront between both parties on what actions will be taken if said item is found or said event should be seen or occur? Should there 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 their one?
The checkbox election poses two separate questions 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? In theory, the patient would get their free preventive screening for the colonoscopy but then be told the patient needs to schedule a second colonoscopy to remove 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 same patient might code up different procedures and diagnostics for the 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 my doctor. 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.
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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 their 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 on each consumer to ensure the doctor’s billing practices match the patient’s expectations for a free preventive health office visit.
I investigated the website http://www.healthcare.gov/news/factsheets/2010/07/preventive-services-list.html and discovered some inconsistencies. For example, the site purports to list the services covered under the “preventive health” coverage benefit, yet it omits the annual physical exam. Also, the site states that colorectal cancer screening is provided for people age 50 or older. However, I have been advised in writing that United Healthcare will cover preventive screening colonoscopies for people under age 50. Essentially, that government web page is a good start to learn about preventive health care benefits, but a better source would be each consumer’s own health insurance carrier. For those with temporary insurance or who are without any insurance coverage, unfortunately, the preventive health benefit of the ACA will not have any practical consequence.
Where will the money come from for the preventive health screening visit to a primary care doctor as well as the screening colonoscopy? We have to look at different scenarios. If the patient has preventive health screenings with no other medical diagnoses, the patient will be charged $0 for these services, and the insurance carrier will pay for them. The insurance carrier will pay these costs out of its operating income or profits. There is simply no other source for payment. The government has not offered to pay the insurance companies for these services.
If the patient is hit with various medical diagnostic codes during these preventive health screenings, then he or she will pay his customary charge for the primary care doctor’s office visit and the contract-negotiated price for the diagnostic colonoscopy. In that scenario, the consumer will be paying most of these costs, although the visit to the primary doc may be limited up to any applicable copay amount.
It is not a big shock or surprise to say health insurance carriers will bear preventive health care. The extent to which these carriers can pass along costs to consumers through higher rates depends on the degree of competition in their markets. Ehealthinsurance.com advises me that the insurance carriers have NOT been able to shift these costs onto consumers through higher rates for the vast majority of states. That may change in 2013 or 2014. However, the trend is clearly moving toward more power for consumers, more options, and carriers available to supply health insurance in their states, which means greater competition and lower prices.
For additional sections of this article, please see http://www.michaelguth.com.
Michael A. S. Guth, Ph.D., J.D., directs Health Economics & Outcomes Research (HEOR) at Risk Management Consulting, a contract research organization in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He has successfully managed the HEOR consulting business for the past ten years. He is also a licensed attorney at law with an active practice of more than 200 clients and has developed expertise on the Affordable Care Act and its implementing regulations. Dr. Guth’s principal research focus has been preventing the onset of age-related diseases known collectively as metabolic syndrome. In diabetes, he is familiar with all of the drugs used to treat the disease and their potential drawbacks. Low thyroid hormones (T3 and T4) may represent one of the most unrecognized and under-treated causes of prediabetes status affecting some 75 million Americans.
His current research comprises optimal health care insurance and total health/wellness programs, including preventive health strategies and employee health engagement and resiliency. Working as part of a global benefits team, he creates an integrated wellness benefits strategy and executes programs to change mid- and high-risk behaviors. He positions wellness and disease prevention as part of a larger strategy for medical cost containment and contributes innovative ideas for achieving this desired result. He demonstrates thinking “outside the box” to rein in health care spending costs and reform patient utilization of medical services. A second area of current research is the use of Clomiphene in men for hormone modulation to prevent cardiovascular disease and other consequences of metabolic syndrome. He is the Principal Investigator of a clinical study that compares the use of Clomiphene with external sources of testosterone given to men; the study includes safety, efficacy, cost, and value comparisons.