Physician, heal my doctor bills

Benifitspro reports:

“Few things make me feel as clueless as a bill from my doctor’s office.

I don’t recognize the abbreviations or understand the jargon. I can’t tell when I’m being charged too much. And there’s no screen on the wall, at least not at my doctor’s office, tallying the cost of each extra test I agree to or question I ask.

But, even if you have health insurance as I do, medical bills can spiral quickly, eating up savings or in extreme cases leading to bankruptcy. Here are ways to protect yourself throughout the process.

Choosing doctors and hospitals

Even people who studiously comparison-shop for their digital camera or winter coat don’t always realize they should do the same for medical services. Prices can vary significantly.

“You can get an MRI on one side of the street that will cost you $2,000, and the exact same MRI on the other side of the street will cost $4,000,” says Dr. Neel Shah, executive director of Costs of Care, a nonprofit that aims to help patients deflate their medical bills.

He isn’t speaking metaphorically. Dr. Jeffrey Rice, CEO of the Healthcare Blue Book, estimates that there’s an average difference of 300 percent to 600 percent between the lowest price and the highest price for any single medical procedure in any U.S. city.

If you’re thinking you needn’t comparison shop because you have insurance, think again. Many insurance plans will still hold you responsible for a portion of the bill in addition to the deductible. And don’t assume that choosing a doctor who’s in your insurance company’s network will solve the problem: Their prices can vary too.

“The biggest problem we see is patients don’t ask about costs before they get their care,” Rice said. “It’s like going to buy a car and deciding afterward that the price was too high.”

You need to call each doctor’s office or hospital you might visit to learn what they charge. The Healthcare Blue Book website, which is free to consumers, can help you figure out what prices might be reasonable. It collects information about the fees doctors accept from insurance companies.

If you’re uninsured, ask about a “self-pay” discount. Doctors often charge less to patients who have to pay out of pocket, but they generally don’t advertise this.

At your visit

Tell your doctor you need to watch what you spend. She might not know the exact cost of each procedure or whether your insurance covers it, but she’ll know the relative value of each test she orders. Maybe she can hold off on a few for a couple of months, until she’s certain you need them. Or, if you need surgery, maybe your doctor can do it at an outpatient facility instead of a hospital.”