Should acute care hospitals be prohibited from attempting to collect health insurance co-pays and other forms of co-insurance bedside in the emergency room?
There isn't actually that much to garner a laugh in Steven Brill's new book America's Bitter Pill, but his description of how medical debt collector Accretive Health sells its services to its acute care hospital customers brought a smile to my lips. First, this was because the "Accretive Secret Sauce" is bedside Emergency Room collection and second, because Steven Brill had apparently never heard of this practice until researching this book.
Just where has he been making visits to the ER with his children? It is reported that at least half of acute care hospitals nationwide have been charging upfront ER fees. We are on the cusp of an era of changing constraints on hospital debt collection practices, including a change to the rules about bedside debt collection in the Emergency Room. Most of the new rules focus on those who likely would ultimately be eligible for free or reduced care and how they are to treated pending that determination. But what about the Bruce Folkens of the world– the ones who most likely will not be eligible for free or reduced fee care? Will upfront fees in the ER remain the rule for them?
After all, could it be that New York Presbyterian, whose expertise in resolving aortic aneurisms such as the one Steven Brill suffered and describes as the narrative framework for much of his book, does not engage in this practice? If not, is it because their post-Emergency Room discharge collection numbers are stronger than those of Fairview Ridges Hospital in Burnsville, Minnesota?
We'll never know because, like a great many important topics in Steven Brill's book, we only know the anecdotal, the one off event. So, let's pause and do justice to Steven Brill's account of Bruce Folken's several hour visit to Fairview Ridges Hospital in Burnsville, Minnesota for chest pain where, yes, a hospital employee asked him about his plans to pay the remaining $493 left on his annual deductible.
Bruce Folken's experience at Fairview Ridges Hospital was not unusual in several ways. First, chest pain is one of the most common reported symptoms that drives Emergency Room visits in the U.S. and Bruce Folken's outcome (a diagnosis of indigestion) is also not atypical. Second, it is further not unusual that ruling out a significant cardiac event does not come cheap for reasons that the rest of Steven Brill's book struggles to explain.
So, once Brucke Folken (described as half way through his visit and resting in bed with an IV) was ruled-out as an emergency cardiac patient, why the rush to obtain payment? Could it have been that the hospital has been monitoring its collection rate and noted that Emergency Room bad debt is a disproportionate share of acute care hospital bad debt? Of course, the fine line here is between bedside debt collection from those using the ER for genuinely emergent care and those using it for urgent or even routine care and Accretive has, more than once, found itself on the wrong side of that line. Bruce Folken's situation is right on the line — perhaps genuinely emergent at the beginning but morphing into urgent by the time bedside debt collection was undertaken.
If this offends, perhaps it is because of the retrospective determination of the validity of use of emergent care under the prudent layperson standard or some other standard found in Bruce Folken's policy, but surely not in having a substantial co-pay outstanding at the time of an ER visit.
You see, this is a scenario that will only increase in frequency. More and more of us are enrolled in high deductible plans and the trendline points upward. So, of course there are now and will be many more Bruce Folkens among those of us with unmet high deductibles and Emergency Room needs.
Don't forget your wallet.
X-posted at PrawfsBlawg