Saturday, January 7, 2012

The American Way

“This is AXA insurance about the patient you saw last month, Mrs. Diaz. We are asking you to accept a lower payment. In exchange, we list you as a preferred provider.” The offer was for less than half what I billed. I declined. AXA would eventually pay my regular rate although a few months would pass.

AXA sells travel insurance to Latin Americans. Its US agency and a dozen others phone me to make housecalls. Afterward, I fax my invoice, and (here American doctors will recoil in amazement) the carrier sends a check for the full amount. I’ve made thousands of such visits.

Working alone, I can’t accept American medical insurance with its complex requirements and unreliable reimbursement. The universal American claim form (called the HICF 1500) is cryptic and ambiguous, requiring mysterious codes and far, far more writing than the form I use. Thus, mine has a single space for today’s date; a HICF form requires today’s date in four or five places. Under “place of service” there is no box to check for “housecall.”

Not accepting American insurance is no problem for me, but I’m a special case. As soon as the average doctor opens an office, every American carrier makes an offer he can’t refuse. If he agrees to become a “preferred provider” and accept a reduced fee, the insurer will send patients. If not….

While foreigners look with horror on our medical care system, foreign insurance carriers have long admired their American counterpart’s techniques for saving money. Inevitably, the temptation has grown irresistible. I’ve long since stopped explaining that, including travel, a housecall may take ten times as long as a clinic visit. These callers are not negotiating; they want a “yes” or “no” answer. They lump all doctor visits together, so housecalls get no special treatment.

American doctors have not taken this lying down. One advantage of the Byzantine American billing system is that a resourceful doctor can tack on charges for tests, injections, medication, dressings, complexity-of-visit, length-of-visit, etc. so that he ends up collecting what he thinks he deserves. After decades of dueling with insurers, the typical American medical bill has become a purely fictional creation.

I quote my fee on the initial phone call. It’s larger if the call gets me out of bed or requires a long drive but never changes once I set off. I’ve made 700 housecalls for AXA over twenty-five years but only four during 2011. This is less tragic than it seems.

Confronted by my refusal to become a preferred provider, AXA and a few other travel insurers transfer their business to one of the national housecall services with names like Expressdoc, Hoteldocs, Travel-Med, AM-PM Doc. All boast that they can send a doctor on a housecall in any US city. Since none employ doctors, when a request arrives, their dispatchers consult a list of moonlighters and begin phoning. Tracking down a doctor willing to make a housecall can be a tedious business except in Los Angeles where calling me always succeeds. I’ve made thousands of visits for these services.

I quote my usual fee. To make a profit these services must bill AXA et al several hundred dollars more. If this seems illogical, you should realize that every insurance carrier knows that the “preferred provider” policy saves money, so no one questions it.

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