At one time in America, there was no such thing as "health insurance." Patients negotiated directly with hospitals and doctors, and paid what they could, often on a sliding scale, according to ability. Eventually, health insurance entered the market, easing the burden of healthcare costs.
It didn't take long to realize the ordinary rules of supply and demand would not apply, if the insurance company, not the patient, was responsible for the bill. Copayments, deductibles, and coinsurance developed as a check against overutilization. If the patient had some "skin" in the game, this would provide some disincentive, though not absolute, but some hedge against over-use. This protective requirement, though necessary, is at times at odds with AMA Code of Ethics Opinion 8.03, which holds: "The primary objective of the medical profession is to render service to humanity; reward or financial gain is a subordinate consideration."
In the current economy, as available dollars are becoming scarce, insurance carriers have begun checking up on the collection of copayments, deductibles, and coinsurance. With greater regularity, physicians and hospitals are receiving letters requesting proof, in perhaps five randomly selected cases, that the provider has collected, or sufficiently attempted to collect the portion of fees which is the patient's responsibility. This comes as a shock to many providers, who in keeping with Opinion 8.03, and the historical tradition of sliding scales, based upon ability to pay, have subordinated financial ability to pay in favor of the higher duty to care for the patient's need.
It is important to understand, however, forgiveness of copayments could land you in hot water. Therefore, doctors must understand the rules regarding waiver of copayments. AMA Opinion 6.12 addresses the ethical considerations:
Opinion 6.12 - Forgiveness or Waiver of Insurance Copayments
Under the terms of many health insurance policies or programs, patients are made more conscious of the cost of their medical care through copayments. By imposing copayments for office visits and other medical services, insurers hope to discourage unnecessary healthcare. In some cases, financial hardship may deter patients from seeking necessary care if they would be responsible for a copayment for the care. Physicians commonly forgive or waive copayments to facilitate patient access to needed medical care. When a copayment is a barrier to needed care because of financial hardship, physicians should forgive or waive the copayment.
A number of clinics have advertised their willingness to provide detailed medical evaluations and accept the insurer's payment but waive the copayment for all patients.
Physicians should be aware that forgiveness or waiver of copayments may violate the policies of some insurers, both public and private; other insurers may permit forgiveness or waiver if they are aware of the reasons for the forgiveness or waiver. Routine forgiveness or waiver of copayments may constitute fraud under state and federal law. Physicians should ensure that their policies on copayments are consistent with applicable law and with the requirements of their agreements with insurers.
Where the insurance contract requires a doctor to make reasonable attempts to collect the patient's portion, an open question surrounds the definition of "reasonable attempts to collect the debt." Historically, doctors could satisfy the requirement by sending at least three letters attempting to collect the debt. However, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) has taken the position that the routine waiver of copayments could constitute a criminal kickback in Medicare cases.
This has emboldened private insurers, who are relying upon this contractual provision as a basis for a post-payment recoupment audit. If a provider cannot demonstrate efforts to collect from the patient, the carrier may demand a refund for any benefits paid across a large patient population.
Providers should be aware of this new emphasis upon patient responsibility. My advice would be to proactively get ahead of the problem. Contact your insurance representative to find out what is expected of you and document the response. By all means, if you are a physician and you receive a letter from an insurance carrier requesting proof of attempts to collect, do not ignore it. A failure to cooperate could constitute grounds for termination of the contract with the payer.
Because this emphasis upon collection of copayments is a fairly recent phenomenon, even if you have been deficient in the past, you may be able to satisfy the carrier by demonstrating a corrective plan of action going forward.