By Jenny Gold
Mon, Feb 24 2014
Sheila Lawless is the office manager at a small rheumatology practice in Wichita Falls, Texas, about two hours outside of Dallas. She makes sure everything in the office runs smoothly – scheduling patients, collecting payments, keeping the lights on. Recently she added another duty--incorporating the trickle of patients with insurance plans purchased on the new Affordable Care Act exchanges.
Open enrollment doesn’t end until March 31, but people who have already bought Obamacare plans are beginning to use them. “We had a spattering in January—maybe once a week. But I think we’re averaging two to three a day now,” says Lawless.
That doesn’t sound like many new customers, but it’s presented a major challenge: verifying that these patients have insurance. Each exchange patient has required the practice to spend an hour or more on the phone with the insurance company. “We’ve been on hold for an hour, an hour and 20, an hour and 45, been disconnected, have to call back again and repeat the process,” she explains. Those sorts of hold times add up fast.
In the past, offices have been able to make sure patients are insured quickly, by using an online verification system. But for exchange patients, practices also have to call the insurer to make sure the patient has paid his premium. If he hasn’t, the insurance company can refuse to pay the doctor for the visit, or come back later and recoup a payment it made.
That’s because of a provision of the law that gives exchange patients who neglect to pay their premium a “grace period” of up to 90 days. During the first 30 days, insurers have to pay any claims incurred by the patient. But for the next 60 days, nothing is guaranteed. If the patient visits the doctor, the insurer can “pend” the claim – that is, wait to pay the doctor until the patient pays his premium. At the end of the 90-day grace period, if the patient has not paid the premium, the insurer can cancel the coverage and refuse to pay the pended claims, or recoup the payments it’s already made. And that puts the doctor’s office at risk.
So Lawless is checking first with the insurer to make sure that everything is in order before proceeding with the visit. If the premium has not been paid, Lawless gives the patient the option of rescheduling the appointment or paying in cash and then applying to his insurer for the payment.
“Most small practices run lean and mean – you’ve got one or two people to do this process plus do their other job duties that day as well, which is tend to the patients in front of them,” says Lawless. To manage the new workload, she’s had other staffers, including nurses, step in to answer the phone. And that means longer hours, more overtime, and higher overhead expenses. And then there’s the plain old annoyance factor.