Out-of-Control Medical Billing is Hindering Pandemic Recovery

This summer, New York leaders passed two key pieces of legislation that would provide much-needed relief to patients burdened by medical debt:

  1. S.6522A/A.7363A: Prohibits a lien being placed on a person’s primary residence for medical debt judgments and prohibits wage garnishment for medical debt judgments.
  2. S.2521C/A.3470C: Requires hospitals to disclose additional “facility fees,” which cover overhead costs, before providing treatment; bans “facility fees” for preventive services.

The Governor has until the end of the year to sign these important bills into law – that’s just three months. 

55 organizations signed on to a letter sent to the Governor last week. Calling her office is key to making our message heard. That’s why we’re starting a push every Monday from October through December to call upon the Governor to take these important steps for patients and #EndMedicalDebt now.

Join us! Use the Phone2Action tool at cssny.org/EndMedicalDebt. Calling is simple: You will get a call from 516-701-2538, listen to a set of talking points, and then be connected to the Governor’s office.

Here’s what we recommend for your call:

Hi, I am [your Name] from [your town/city] and I want the Governor two sign two important bills to help End Medical Debt and relieve the burden that is crushing New Yorkers.
As soon as possible, we need Governor Hochul to sign into law:
– The bill to Ban Medical Liens and Wage Garnishments, S6522A/A7363 and
– The bill to Regulate Facility Fees, S2521C/A3470C.
Thank you.

Good luck and happy #MedicalDebtMonday!

Women are still struggling with surprise bills and making decisions about health care in the absence of meaningful price information, according to a focus group held by HCFANY. Several focus group participants described surprise bills as a big problem:

  • Three described bills that should have been prevented by New York’s Surprise Bill Law.
  • Some received out-of-network bills after being erroneously informed told by a provider or their insurance company that their provider was in-network.
  • Some also described surprise bills for telemedicine visits which the patient did not know were billable visits.

Participants also described problems gathering information about prices before receiving health care services. The focus group was part of a series investigating the effect of medical debt on different types of people across New York.

Women are more likely to have health insurance than men, but are also more likely to have medical debt. Nationally, 8.2% of women are uninsured compared to 10.2% of men, but 26.8% have past-due medical bills while only 20.8% of men do.[1] The type of coverage women have is similar to the coverage the general population has, other than slightly higher enrollment in Medicaid (see Table 1).  However, women may be more exposed to affordability challenges than men because of lower earnings and higher health care costs.  

Even in New York, where the gender pay gap is the lowest in the country, women only earn 89 cents for every dollar earned by men.[2] Lower pay may mean women enroll in coverage that has lower upfront costs, but less financial protection because of higher cost-sharing. The employer-sponsored plans women have access to may also come with higher costs than average because women are more likely to work in lower-wage jobs that may offer less robust health insurance.[3] The financial challenges women experience are compounded because women are more likely to seek health care for themselves or to interact with the health care system as a caretaker for others than men. This is true even when excluding pregnancy-related health care because women are more likely to seek treatment for chronic illnesses than men.[4]

Table 1. Health Insurance for Adults Aged 19-64 in New York State, 2019
Type of InsuranceWomen[5]All New York[6]
Direct Purchase7%7%

New York should do more to protect patients from unfair medical bills. The state should fully fund the Community Health Advocates program to support patients fighting surprise bills. It should ensure that surprise bills resulting from misinformation about a provider’s network status are covered by the Surprise Bill law. Legislation that would have done this failed to pass the State legislature last year. The State should also require providers to inform patients when a phone call will be billed as a telemedicine visit.

[1] United States Census, Selected Characteristics of the Uninsured in the United States (Table S2702), 2019: ACS 1-Year Estimates Subject Tables, https://data.census.gov/cedsci/table?q=United%20States&g=0400000US36&tid=ACSST1Y2019.S2702&hidePreview=true and Michael Karpman and Kyle J. Caswell, “Past-Due Medical Debt among Nonelderly Adults, 2012-15,” The Urban Institute, March 2017, http://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/88586/past_due_medical_debt.pdf.

[2] New York State Department of Labor, “Closing the Gender Wage Gap in New York State: Pay Equity and Achievement,” April 2018, https://www.kff.org/womens-health-policy/fact-sheet/womens-health-insurance-coverage/. https://www.governor.ny.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/Pay_Equity_Advancement_WageGap_.pdf.

[3] Michael Karpman and Kyle J. Caswell, “Past-Due Medical Debt among Nonelderly Adults, 2012-15,” The Urban Institute, March 2017, http://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/88586/past_due_medical_debt.pdf

[4] Lois K. Lee, “Women’s Coverage, Utilization, Affordability, And Health After The ACA: A Review of the Literature,” Health Affairs, Vol. 39, No. 3: March 2020, https://doi.org/10.1377/hlthaff.2019.01361.

[5] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Women’s Health Insurance Coverage,” January 12, 2021, https://www.kff.org/womens-health-policy/fact-sheet/womens-health-insurance-coverage/.

[6] Kaiser Family Foundation, “Health Insurance of Adults 19-64 (2019), available at https://www.kff.org/other/state-indicator/adults-19-64/?currentTimeframe=0&sortModel=%7B%22colId%22:%22Location%22,%22sort%22:%22asc%22%7D.

Transgender people across the country face discrimination and other barriers to care which can make it difficult to achieve their health care goals. These barriers are there for New Yorkers, too, and came up during a HCFANY-led focus group looking into how LGBTQ+ New Yorkers are affected by medical debt.  Participants described high medical bills after coverage denials for gender-affirming care – despite plans covering these same procedures, like hormone therapy, for cis patients. The discussion also found that LGBTQ+ New Yorkers are still paying out-of-pocket for surprise bills, even as they should be protected under New York’s Surprise Bill Law.

LGBTQ+ New Yorkers should know that they can get support from the State and from advocates if they experience discrimination in the health care system. New York State requires coverage for all gender-affirming treatment and last year required NYS-regulated insurance carriers to develop evidence-based medical necessity criteria for gender-affirming care. All plans are required to submit their criteria to the State for approval and in June the State announced that carriers are complying with the requirements. This is important because it means medical necessity decisions are more standardized and if anything goes wrong, plan members have documentation of what the plan was supposed to do. Until the State required it, many plans had no written policies on gender-affirming care. When they did, their policies didn’t always match medical best practices and categorized necessary treatments as cosmetic.

In its “Health Coverage Information for Transgender New Yorkers” guide, the state describes the process for appealing denials or filing complaints with the state when your rights have been violated. You can also get help from programs like the Community Health Advocates. They can help you no matter what type of insurance you have. Fighting to get health care you need can be exhausting and painful – if you want help, you don’t have to take on the entire burden by yourself.

CHA advocates can also help with the surprise bills that so many focus group participants described. These billing problems included bills that are clearly covered under New York’s Surprise Bill law and receiving multiple bills of varying amounts for one service. One participant received a medical bill that was so unclear she could not find contact information to pay it, even after multiple calls to the hospital where she received care. Another described conversations with their providers’ billing office as feeling “like a tennis ball being bounced around different courts.”  

New York should continue to monitor insurance policies on gender-affirming care and ensure that plans who violate coverage requirements are held accountable. It should also make sure that consumer assistance programs like CHA are fully funded so that patients have support dealing with unclear and unfair medical bills.

In a recent survey, one-third of people who still haven’t been vaccinated against Covid-19 said fear of the cost is a factor. Federal law is very clear: no health care provider is allowed to bill any patient for the vaccine. But with a health care system that produces so many medical billing horror stories, it’s little wonder that patients don’t trust providers to follow the law.

Many patients trying to obtain preventive care like vaccinations or cancer screenings receive unexpected medical bills. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) prohibits cost-sharing for these services, and for good reason: regular preventive care helps people avoid or manage many chronic illnesses, gives them better outcomes for many types of cancer, and helps us control infectious diseases like flu and Covid-19 through vaccinations. But bills for preventive care still sneak through. One common issue arises when providers use the wrong billing code. If a service isn’t coded as protected preventive care, patients get charged. Patients then have to try and decipher what went wrong, even though the bills they receive are not required to include those codes or even explain what services are being charged for. Legislation proposed in New York State called the Patient Medical Debt Protection Act would have required providers to list all services being charged for in plain language on every medical bill but has failed to pass two years in row.

Facility fees are another way that patients end up with bills for preventive care. Facility fees are administrative charges not associated with any medical service. They are typically charged by hospitals. However, as hospitals purchase more outpatient medical offices, more patients get hit with facility fees outside of hospitals. Facility fees aren’t charges for any specific medical service, so the ACA’s prohibition on charging for preventive care doesn’t apply. (You can learn more about facility fees here and here.) Legislation that would have barred billing for facility fees after preventive care visits passed the New York Senate this session but failed to move in the Assembly. The bill also would have required providers to tell patients ahead of time that facility fees will be applied to their bill, giving them the chance to schedule appointments somewhere else.

Patients are so distrustful of our health care system that it is interfering with our ability to achieve public health goals. Patient protections such as those that prohibit cost-sharing for Covid-19 vaccinations can help. However they can’t solve the problem. Patients should only receive medical bills that clearly explain charges and be told ahead of time about fees that will be added to their bill no matter what care they receive. Health care providers and public health officials can educate the public about vaccinations and preventive health screenings, but it won’t convince patients who have learned from experience that the only way to avoid unaffordable medical bills is to avoid medical care whenever they can.