Some of our practice management roundtable participants are offering certain patients an opportunity to pay fees of less than the standard fee schedule for their care. Below we will discuss how they are reaching that decision and if it could be appropriate for your practice.
Some patients have no insurance coverage but want to pay for their care. For this group, there is logic to support a price which is less than the standard fee schedule, if that fee schedule is already set above the amounts paid by all insurance companies and Medicare. The fee reduction is based on an acknowledgment that billed fees for health care are generally set at higher amounts than the providers expect anyway, so some discounting is within reason. A problem occurs when your group’s fees are set at precisely the amounts paid by your largest payers and any discount reduces your fee to levels below what insurance companies or government payers pay you. This can get you into big trouble because those payers are willing to pay only your UCR or Usual and Customary Rate, and if you are regularly making a lower rate available to others, the large payers could ask for repayments. However, if your fee schedule is sufficiently high, a discount to an individual might still leave you with enough fee to protect against violating any “most favored nation” clause in your contract with an insurance company.
After this logic is used to support fee reductions to uninsured patients, can it also be applied to patients who are underinsured? Most employers have received significant annual increases in medical insurance premiums for coverage of their employees. As a result, the employers are modifying the coverage to increase the deductibles dramatically. In one client practice, the annual deductibles per person were raised from $750 to $5,000 after premiums increased 18 percent, 18 percent and 15 percent over the most recent three years. As a result, patients are presenting at medical offices with personal liability so great that they are not able to pay for care. Some administrators even indicate that patients are postponing needed care because of their inability to pay for it.
If a practice has made a decision to reduce fees for patients without coverage, and since many patients are facing large deductibles, those physician offices are extending discounts to insured patients who wish to personally pay a lower fee in full at the time of service. Under HIPAA, patients do have the right to pay for care and request that you not file a claim with their insurance company, but there are forms the patient must sign to correctly document this handling.
The danger associated with any discounting is the possibility that all the discounted dollars serve to reduce physician bonuses at year end. The practice overhead will not be reduced by reason of discounting. If these discounts are thought of as the last dollars collected, then they would have been available for MD payment at bonus time. However, if by discounting you are collecting patient payment monies that would otherwise have become a bad debt not collected, then the amounts you receive are incremental money for distribution to doctors at year end. Which of these situations applies to you will depend on whether your group is writing off uncollected patient balances that could have been obtained, in part, at the time of service.
So what is the take away relative to this trend? First, have a practice which is so well known for excellence in care that you may pick the patients you want and avoid discounting fees to anyone. Next, make sure your standard fee schedule is set higher than the reimbursement you receive from your practice’s highest payer. Finally, reach an agreement among all of your physicians on the discounting process you want to consistently apply and implement that process by training all staff. Times are changing in health care and one major change is the shifting of cost risks to the patients from their insurance carriers. Be sure your practice is adapting to this area of change.
Article contributed by Sae Evans, Maddox Casey and Jim Stroud, Members, Warren Averett Healthcare Consulting Group. Warren Averett is an official Gold Partner with the Medical Association.