clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Hospital bill may be a shock — even if you have insurance

Think your hospital stay is covered? You may be in for a surprise.

If your hospital care goes beyond your primary physician or surgeon to include anesthesiologists, pathologists, radiologists or even an additional surgeon or doctors in the emergency room, your insurance might not cover the cost.

When your hospital stay isn't an emergency, you have time to plan. For example, if you're having surgery, it isn't enough to know that your surgeon is a member of the network. Ask the surgeon who will provide your anesthesia, and make sure that the doctor or nurse-anesthetist also participates.

"Patients routinely tell us that they don't even know who the doctor listed on their bill is," says Nora Johnson of Medical Billing Advocates of America, which specializes in resolving billing issues.

Check to see if the pathologist is covered, too. If you have a choice, tell your primary doctor you'd prefer a physician in your network.

You won't necessarily get your wish. If the doctors on a hospital's staff are members of the same practice, it's likely that all or none of them will accept your insurance.

Or an in-network specialist may not be available. In that case, ask if the scheduled doctor will accept lower, out-of-network coverage, advises Tom Bridenstine, managed care ombudsman for the Virginia insurance bureau. The doctor may be willing.

"The problem occurs when a doctor who provides services expects to be paid at a certain level and then isn't," says Bridenstine.

If you can't work out an arrangement with the doctor, talk to your insurer. Aetna, for instance, occasionally gives advance approval to cover a nonparticipating doctor, says spokeswoman Karin Rush-Monroe.

In an emergency, you don't have the luxury of planning. But you can be prepared, and maybe avoid unpleasant surprises, by reading your plan's provisions to see what coverage to expect.

If you end up with out-of-network charges that a phone call can't resolve, file an appeal. Let the hospital and doctors know that you are appealing so they don't send the bill to a collection agency. If your hospital has patient advocates, use them, and ask the provider's billing department to help. For additional assistance, contact your state's insurance department.

But even if you're successful, it's unlikely that the entire bill will disappear. If you can, stash some extra cash in your flexible spending account at work to cover out-of-pocket expenses.