Power of Pain: Check Your Medical Bills for Errors

By Barby Ingle, Columnist

According to a study from The American Journal of Medicine, nearly two out of three bankruptcies stem from some sort of medical debt. How much of this debt is due to errors in medical bills?

According to a recent report by ABC News, one expert claimed to be finding errors on between 80–85% of the medical bills they reviewed. The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations and Medical Billing Advocates of America, national associations that check bills for consumers, say 8 out of 10 hospital bills its members scrutinize contain errors.

We tend to budget and work to slash our grocery, clothing, entertainment, and other spending, but forget to cut out-of-pocket medical costs. You can start saving money by checking your medical bills for errors and correct overcharges. Overcharges are fairly common, and correcting them can save you thousands of dollars.

While you may have no control over increases in premiums, co-payments, and deductibles, there's no reason to pay more than you should because of billing errors. Bills from doctors' offices and labs tend to have fewer mistakes, but they do happen. Mistakes can result from typos or deliberate overcharges. 

The National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association, a Washington, D.C.-based group of health insurers and state and federal law-enforcement officials, estimates that at least 3 percent of all health-care spending -- or $68 billion – is lost to fraud.

With a little time and perseverance, you may be able uncover overcharges by keeping a treatment log and reviewing bills as they arrive. Create a log of every test, treatment, and medication you receive. If you don't feel well enough to keep your own record, ask a relative or friend to do it. Even a limited list will make it easier to decipher your billing statements. 

There's no single list of fees you can check as to what your share of the cost is for insurance coverage. Insurers have a separate contract with each of your providers that determines how much they will pay. Therefore, after you schedule a procedure, test, or lab work, phone the providers to ask what they will charge and which Common Procedural Terminology (CPT) codes they will be submitting to your insurer.  

The next step is to call your insurance company to ask for an estimate of the amount your plan will cover and what you'll be responsible for paying. It’s good to get it in writing as verification or, at the minimum, ask the name of the representative and note the date and time of the phone call.  

The first statement you are likely to get is an explanation of benefits (EOB) from your insurance company or Medicare. The EOB statement will tell you the total amount being charged for your procedures, the amount your insurer is paying, and the amount you owe in deductibles and co-payments.

When bills begin to arrive from your doctors, compare the list of procedures with your notes. If you have a question about an item on a bill, phone that provider's office directly for an explanation. If charges are grouped together in broad categories—for example, all lab tests are lumped under one charge -- ask for an itemized bill if further clarification is needed.

If you find a mistake, first call your provider, explain the error, and ask someone in the billing department to make the correction. For each call you make, keep a record of the time, the name of the person you spoke with, and what you were told.

Those may be the only steps you have to take to get the matter settled. If that doesn't work, call an account representative or the fraud department of your insurance company. Next, I would suggest based on personal experience an appeal to your state consumer-protection agency or your state attorney general's office.  

If you can't get the problem resolved before the bill is due, you should pay the part of the bill not in dispute. If you find the disputed bills on your reports as unpaid accounts, write to the credit bureaus to explain the ongoing dispute. Also provide them copies of the EOB, doctor statement and any payments you did make on non-disputed charges. The bureaus must review your complaint and correct your report when proper documentation is provided.

Help protect yourself and your pocketbook so that you can help prevent the dreaded medical bankruptcy situation. So many times people just don’t get the treatment they need because they do not understand our medical billing system, or they get the treatment and overpay or get swamped with medical bills leading to bankruptcy.

Take the steps to protect yourself. A little work today will give you a more stable financial tomorrow and help you get proper and timely access to care as needed.

Barby Ingle suffers from Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) and endometriosis. She is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, motivational speaker, best-selling author, and president of the Power of Pain Foundation.

More information about Barby can be found by clicking here.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.