Think back to that big hospital bill you got when you thought the stay would be covered—even when you made sure the medical center was in your network. Or the outpatient surgery, where there was a huge fee, even though the surgeon said he takes your insurance.
You might have been balanced billed.
In two sentences, balance billing happens when your insurance company and your doctor don’t have an agreement on how much a service should cost. And when the doctor doesn’t think he or she has been paid fairly, you get billed for the difference.
But what’s important is that often times, you are not responsible for the bill. In many states, balance billing in certain situations is against the law.
What is Balance Billing?
Balance billing can occur when you visit a non-contracted (or out-of-network) provider. That provider has no agreement with your insurance company as far as how much he or she should be paid to treat you (most likely, they couldn’t agree on what should be paid, that’s precisely why there’s no contract). That’s why balance billing is most common with HMOs (and sometimes PPOs).
Here’s what happens, in a nutshell:
1) You get care from the provider, and he sends a claim to your insurance plan.
2) The insurance plan doesn’t pay the entire amount (why would they? They’ve made no agreements to).
3) The provider is unhappy. He didn’t get fully paid for his services, after all.
4) The provider bills you for the difference.
Of course, it’s more complicated than this. Knowing whether or not your providers were in-network is not always obvious. And separating balance billing from deductibles and co-insurance (which are legitimate charges) can be confusing.
Remember that providers could include many types of people or facilities: Every doctor that sees you in the ER, the imaging center where you got an MRI, the ambulance company, or the hospital. For example, many balance billing cases occur when an anesthesiologist is non-contracted, even though the surgeon and the hospital are in your network. You hardly get to see the anesthesiologist, let alone ask ahead of time whether he or she works with your plan. The same thing happens in the ER. Most people aren’t about to stop to ask about insurance in the middle of an emergency.
What If You Think You Have a Balance Bill?
1) Request an itemized bill if the services are not already broken out in detail. There should be separate line items for each provider.
2) Compare the charges to your network benefits. Have you met your deductible? What are the co-pays or coinsurance? Determine whether the charges exceed your usual cost-sharing.
3) Call your health plan and ask whether every provider involved was a network provider.
4) Find out what the rules on balance billing are where you live—every state is different. Contact your state’s Insurance Department or go here for a quick check.
5) If you believe you’ve been sent a balance bill when it was not allowed, contact your provider. If you can’t get the bill dropped, think about getting help from your state Insurance Department or a billing advocate.
Never ignore a bill—that could end up affecting your credit—but don’t be shy to question the amount that you owe. To learn more about why out-of-network care can cost so much, see Going Out of Network? Read This First.