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.