Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Those Indecipherable Medical Bills? They’re One Reason Health Care Costs So Much.

The catastrophe struck Wanda Wickizer on Christmas Day 2013. A generally healthy, energetic 51-year-old, she suddenly found herself vomiting all day, racked with debilitating headaches. When her alarmed teenage son called an ambulance, the paramedics thought that she had food poisoning and didn’t take her to the emergency room. Later, when she became confused and groggy at 3 a.m., her boyfriend raced her to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital in coastal Virginia, where a scan showed she was suffering from a subarachnoid hemorrhage. A vessel had burst, and blood was leaking into the narrow space between the skull and the brain.

During a subarachnoid hemorrhage, if the pressure in the head isn’t relieved, blood accumulates in that narrow space and can push the brain down toward the neck. Vital nerves that control breathing and vision are compressed. Death is imminent. Wickizer was whisked by helicopter ambulance to the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, 160 miles away, for an emergency procedure to halt the bleeding.

After spending days in a semi-comatose state, Wickizer slowly recovered and left the hospital three weeks after the hemorrhage, grateful to be alive. But soon after she returned home to her two teenage children, she found herself confronted with a different kind of catastrophe. Wickizer had had health insurance for most of her adult life: Her husband, who died in 2006, worked for the city of Norfolk, which insured their family while he was alive and for three years beyond. After his death, Wickizer worked in a series of low-wage jobs, but none provided health insurance. A minor pre-existing condition — she was taking Lexapro, a common medicine for depression — meant that her only insurance option was to be funneled into the “high-risk pool” (a type of costly insurance option that was essentially rendered obsolete by the Affordable Care Act and now figures in some of the G.O.P. plans to replace it). She would need to pay more than $800 per month for a policy with a $5,000 deductible, and her medical procedures would then be reimbursed at 80 percent. She felt she couldn’t afford that. In 2011, she decided to temporarily stop working to tend to her children, which qualified them for Medicaid; with trepidation, she left herself uninsured.

And so in early 2014, without an insurer or employer or government agency to run interference between her and the hospital, she began receiving bills: $16,000 from Sentara Norfolk (not including the scan or the E.R. doctor), $50,000 for the air ambulance. By the end of January, there was also one for $24,000 from the University of Virginia Physicians’ Group: charges for some of the doctors at the medical center. “I thought, O.K., that’s not so bad,” Wickizer recalls. A month later, a bill for $54,000 arrived from the same physicians’ group, which included further charges and late fees. Then a separate bill came just for the hospital’s charges, containing a demand for $356,884.42 but little in the way of comprehensible explanation.

In other countries, when patients recover from a terrifying brain bleed — or, for that matter, when they battle cancer, or heal from a serious accident, or face down any other life-threatening health condition — they are allowed to spend their days focusing on getting better. Only in America do medical treatment and recovery coexist with a peculiar national dread: the struggle to figure out from the mounting pile of bills what portion of the fantastical charges you actually must pay. It is the sickness that eventually afflicts most every American.

What’s less understood is the extent to which our current medical-billing system itself is responsible for the high prices patients are charged. There are, of course, many factors that have led to the United States’ record-breaking $3 trillion health care bill: runaway drug prices, excessive testing and sky-high charges for even the most basic medical interventions. But all of those individual price increases have been enabled — indeed, aided and abetted — by the complex system of billing and coding that underlies bills like those sent to Wickizer. That system, with its lines of alphanumeric codes and arcane medical abbreviations, has given birth to a gigantic new industry of consultants, armies of back-room experts whom medical providers and insurance companies deploy against each other in an endless war over which medical procedures were undertaken and how much to pay for them. Caught in the crossfire are Americans like Wanda Wickizer, left with huge bills and indecipherable explanations in languages they cannot possibly understand.

Disease-classification systems originated during an outbreak of the bubonic plague in 17th-century London — epidemiologic constructs to classify and track causes of death and prevent the spread of infections among populations that spoke different languages. In the 1890s, the French physician and statistician Jacques Bertillon further systematized death reporting by introducing the Bertillon Classification of Causes of Death, the first medical-coding system, which was adopted and modified in many countries. It became an official global effort, which was periodically revised by an international commission. During the first half of the 20th century, the number of entries naturally increased with improved understanding of science, and many countries began tabulating not just causes of deaths but also the incidence of diseases.

In the 1940s, the World Health Organization took over stewardship of Bertillon’s system and renamed it to reflect a new, broader focus: the International Statistical Classification of Diseases, Injuries and Causes of Death (ICD). The codes became an invaluable tool, a common language for epidemiologists and statisticians to track the world’s afflictions. But over the last several decades in the United States, codes gradually took on a bedrock financial function as the basis for medical billing. In 1979, the government decided to use what by then were called ICD-9 codes — which specify the patient’s diagnosis — in adjudicating Medicare and Medicaid claims, with some modifications added specifically for that purpose; the United States version was called ICD-9-CM. (The country has recently moved to a new iteration, ICD-10-CM.) For its beneficiaries, Medicare pays a fixed fee for inpatient hospitalization based primarily on the ICD-CM code, which is translated into a DRG (diagnosis-related group) code — which is the immediate basis for reimbursement.

Other insurers followed in making codes the basis for billing. Coding systems begot new coding systems, because few hospitals wanted to be paid according to Medicare’s relatively low DRG standards. And because strategic coding meant increased payment, that begot coding specialists and coding courses and coding degrees. There are now different increasingly complex coding languages that define payment for different kinds of services: CPT codes, for office visits delivered by doctors, as well as HCPCS, ICD-PCS-CM and DRG, for charges that are incurred in the hospital. There are tens of thousands of codes in each lexicon that have become increasingly specific. For example, there are different codes for in-office earwax removal depending on the method used (irrigation or instruments), different codes for delivering different vaccinations and a code for each injection delivered in the hospital. Different insurers also use different coding systems. While Medicare would have most likely considered Wickizer’s brain bleed as DRG 021, if billed to a commercial insurer, it could result in more than a dozen ICD codes and hundreds of HCPCS entries.

Seemingly subtle choices about which code to use can have large financial consequences. If after reviewing a hospital chart of, say, a patient who has just had a problem with his heart, a hospital coder indicates the diagnosis code for “heart failure” (ICD-9-CM Code 428) instead of the one for “acute systolic heart failure” (Code 428.21), the difference could mean thousands of dollars. “In order to code for the more lucrative code, you have to know how it is defined and make sure the care described in the chart meets the criterion, the definition, for that higher number,” says one experienced coder in Florida, who helped with Wickizer’s case and declined to be identified because she works for another major hospital. In order to code for “acute systolic heart failure,” the patient’s chart ought to include supporting documentation, for example, that the heart was pumping out less than 25 percent of its blood with each beat and that he was given an echocardiogram and a diuretic to lower blood pressure. Submitting a bill using the higher code without meeting criteria could constitute fraud.

Each billing decision, then, can be seen as a battle of coder versus coder. The coders who work for hospitals and doctors strive to bring in as much revenue as possible from each service, while coders employed by insurers try to deny claims as overreaching. Coders who audit Medicare charts look for abuse to reclaim money or fraud that needs to be punished with fines. Hospital coders teach doctors — and doctors pay to take courses — to learn how they can “upcode” their charts to a more lucrative level with minimal effort. In a doctor’s office, a Level 3 visit (paid, say, at $175) might be legally transformed into a Level 4 (say, $225) by performing one extra maneuver, like weighing the patient or listening to the lungs, whether the patient’s illness required that or not.

While most hospitals and insurers set their own rates for each level of care, adding a step when interacting with a patient can also bring windfalls. E.R. doctors, for example, learned that insurers might accept a higher-reimbursed code for the examination and treatment of a patient with a finger fracture (usually 99282) if — in addition to needed interventions — a narcotic painkiller was also prescribed (a plausible bump up to 99283), indicating a more serious condition.

Toward the end of the 20th century and into the next, as strategic coding increased, a new industry thrived. For-profit colleges offered medical-coding degrees, and internships soon followed. Because alphanumeric coding languages are as distinct from one another as Chinese is from Russian, different degree tracks are necessary, along with distinct professional organizations that offer their own particular professional exams, certifications and licensing. Hospital systems and insurers — which have become huge, Hydra-like enterprises — now all employ roomfuls of coding-program graduates to perform these tasks. Membership in the American Academy of Professional Coders has risen to more than 170,000 today from roughly 70,000 in 2008.

Individual doctors have complained bitterly about the increasing complexity of coding and the expensive necessity of hiring their own professional coders and billers — or paying a billing consultant. But they have received little support from the medical establishment, which has largely ignored the protests. And perhaps for good reason: The American Medical Association owns the copyright to CPT, the code used by doctors. It publishes coding books and dictionaries. It also creates new codes when doctors want to charge for a new procedure. It levies a licensing fee on billing companies for using CPT codes on bills. Royalties for CPT codes, along with revenues from other products, are the association’s biggest single source of income.

Patients with good health insurance are often blissfully unaware and mostly unaffected by the jockeying that goes on over how to code their bills. But uninsured patients like Wickizer, or (increasingly) those with high deductibles, are stuck with no insurer to argue on their behalf. Her experience with the University of Virginia Medical Center is not unique: Studies have shown that hospitals charge patients who are uninsured or self-pay 2.5 times more than they charge those covered by health insurance (who are billed negotiated rates) and three times more than the amount allowed by Medicare. That gap has grown considerably since the 1980s.

by Elisabeth Rosenthal, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Paul Sahre