Tai Boxley needs a hysterectomy. The 34-year-old single mother has uterine prolapse, a condition that occurs when the muscles and ligaments supporting the uterus weaken, causing severe pain, bleeding and urine leakage.
Boxley and her 13-year-old son have health insurance through her job as an administrative assistant in Tulsa, Okla. But the plan has a deductible of $5,000 apiece, and Boxley's doctor said he won't do the surgery until she prepays her share of the cost.
His office estimates that will be as much as $2,500. Boxley is worried that the hospital may demand its cut as well before the surgery can be performed.
"I'm so angry," Boxley said. "If I need medical care, I should be able to get it without having to afford it up front."
At many doctors offices and hospitals, a routine part of doing business these days is estimating patients' out-of-pocket payments and trying to collect the money up front. Eyeing retailers' practice of keeping credit card information on file, "there's certainly been a movement by health care providers to store some of this information and be able to access it with patients' permission," said Mark Rukavina, a principal at Community Health Advisors in Chestnut Hill, Mass., who works with hospitals on addressing financial barriers to care.
But there's a big difference between handing over a credit card to cover a $20 copayment and suddenly being confronted with a $2,000 charge to cover a deductible, an amount that might take months to pay off or exceed a patient's credit limit.
Doctors may refuse to provide needed care before the payment is made, even as patients' health hangs in the balance.
The strategy leaves patients financially vulnerable, too. Once a charge is on a patient's credit card, they may have trouble contesting a medical bill. Likewise, a service placed on a credit card represents a consumer's commitment that the charge was justified, so nonpayment is more likely to harm a credit score.
Approximately three-quarters of health care and hospital systems ask for payment at the time services are provided, a practice known as "point-of-service collections," estimated Richard Gundling, a senior vice president at the Healthcare Financial Management Association, an industry group. He couldn't say how many were doing so for higher priced services or for patients with high-deductible plans, situations that would likely result in out-of-pocket outlays of hundreds or thousands of dollars.
"For providers, there's more risk with these higher deductibles, because the chance of being able to collect it later diminishes," Gundling said.
But the practice leaves many patients resentful.
After arriving by ambulance at the emergency department, Susan Bradshaw lay on a gurney in her hospital gown with a surgical bonnet on her head, waiting to be wheeled into surgery to remove her appendix at a hospital near her home in Maitland, Fla. A woman in street clothes approached her. Identifying herself as the surgeon's office manager, she demanded that Bradshaw make her $1,400 insurance payment before the surgery could proceed.
"I said, 'You have got to be kidding. I don't even have a comb,' " Bradshaw, a 68-year-old exhibit designer, told the woman on that night eight years ago. "I don't have a credit card on me."
The woman crossed her arms and Bradshaw remembers her saying, "You have to figure it out."
As providers aim to maximize their collections, many contract with companies that help doctors and hospitals secure payments up front, often providing scripts that prompt staff to talk with patients about their payment obligations and discuss payment scenarios as well as software that can estimate what a patient will owe.
But as hospitals and doctors push for point-of-service payments to reduce bad debt from patients with increasingly high deductibles, the risk is that patients will delay care and end up in the emergency room, Rukavina said. "Patients are essentially paying for their procedures up front," he said. "It may not be a significant amount compared to their salary, but they don't necessarily have it available at the time of service."
The higher their deductible, the less likely patients are to pay what they owe, according to an analysis of 400,000 claims by the Advisory Board, a health care research and consulting firm. While more than two-thirds of patients with a deductible of less than $1,000 were likely to pay at least some portion of what they owe, just 36 percent of those with deductibles of more than $5,000 did so, the analysis found.
Fifty-one percent of workers with insurance through their employer had a deductible of at least $1,000 for single coverage this year, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation's annual survey of employer health insurance. (KHN is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)
Boxley pays $110 a month for her family plan. She could not afford the premiums on plans with lower deductibles that her employer offered. She plans to talk with the doctor and hospital about setting up a payment plan so she can get the surgery in January.
"I'll make payments," Boxley said, although she acknowledged what she could pay monthly would be small. If that doesn't pan out, she figures she'll have to use student loan money she got for graduate school to cover what she owes.
Still, experts say that trying to pin patients down for payment in more acute settings, such as the emergency department, may cross a line.
Under the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, a patient who has a health emergency has to be stabilized and treated before any hospital personnel can discuss payment with them. If it's not an emergency, however, those discussions can occur before treatment, said Dr. Vidor Friedman, an emergency physician who is the secretary-treasurer of American College of Emergency Physicians' board of directors.
Bradshaw finally got her appendix removed by calling a friend, who read his MasterCard number over the phone. The surgery was uneventful and Bradshaw was home within 24 hours.
"It's a very murky, unclear situation," Friedman said of Bradshaw's experience, noting that a case might be made that her condition wasn't life threatening. "At the very least it's poor form, and goes against the intent if not the actual wording of" federal law.
Michelle Andrews is on Twitter:@mandrews110.