It's likely happened to you.
A week or so after a routine doctor visit, you get an outrageous bill, charged for things you didn't even know would cost you.
It’s a practice people call "sneaky medical billing.”
In some cases it includes steep charges for fairly simple procedures, including a charge for $80 to clear a pore and more than $50 to remove wax from a child's ear (and that’s after insurance kicked in). In other cases, it's tens of thousands of dollars for complex medical care.
Kathleen O’Keefe is a three time breast cancer survivor.
You would probably never know it just looking at her. She walks around with a smile and a good sense of humor. She says her spirits were never challenged more than when she was forced to battle pilings bills on top of her cancer.
“That’s a whole different creature! That’s when you’re down and out and couldn’t get any lower, then the bills start pouring in,” she said.
Her husband quit his job so he could focus more time on organizing and disputing charges. Many of them, they learned, were not accurate. The O’Keefe’s said they were being wrongly and overbilled.
“If he had not be on it, [we would’ve lost] anywhere from $40-$60,000,” she said.
According to medical experts, it's up to you, the patient, to make sure these charges don't sneak up on you.
Healthcare advocate and nurse Michelle Katz called "sneaky medical billing" a nationwide problem that’s getting worse. In her practice, she’s seen errors in at least 20% of bills and the more procedures done, the more you see wrong, she said.
“You have some doctors who are unfortunately taking advantage of the system, but then you have other doctors who don't even know the system,” Katz said.
Katz told NBC 7 doctors are not required to tell you when a procedure is going to cost you, and, again, the onus is on the patient.
There are ways to help prevent these billing problems. They include being pro-active before, during and after your appointment:
- Research what’s covered and what’s not before you see your doctor (you can do this by calling your insurance or talking to the billing department at your doctor’s office).
- During the appointment, ask for an itemized bill (this is a more detailed record of your visit; your medical bill is more of a summary).
- Take notes after the visit, and record what your doctor did.
“So by the time the medical bill comes, and you have the itemized bill, you can say I don’t remember that and bring it back to the billing person,” advised Katz.
You may experience pushback, but the key is to be polite and persistent, she said.
Katz said you should first try and work with the billing department. If that doesn’t work, ask to speak to the doctor.
As difficult as it may be, one of her key tips is also – to not get upset.