Hiring a Guide to the Medical Bill Maze

Photographer: Stephen Schauer/Getty Images

Photographer: Stephen Schauer/Getty Images

When Annrose Isaac’s twins were born prematurely, she thought her insurer would cover their stay in the neonatal intensive care unit. “The hospital was in our network, but it turned out the physician in the NICU who saw our daughters didn’t participate with our insurer,” says the Westwood (New Jersey)-based financial planner. “All of a sudden we were getting bills for over $30,000.”

As part of her husband’s benefits package, Isaac had access to a medical billing assistance company called Health Advocate. It negotiated with the physician’s health-care group to reduce her bill to $7,000.

More than 60 percent of all U.S. personal bankruptcies are linked to illness and unpaid medical bills, according to a 2009 Harvard University study, even though 78 percent of those filing for bankruptcy because of illness have some form of health insurance. So hiring a medical billing advocate can be an essential part of the cure to financial ills.

Yet finding the right advocate can be tough, and those in the direst situations can ill afford the typical $75- to $130-an-hour rate. “This business is painfully slow-growing,” says Becky Stephenson, co-president of the Alliance of Claims Assistance Professionals (ACAP), an advocate trade group. “There are a lot of people with problems but not a lot of people willing to pay you to help them.” Despite long experience, Stephenson herself has trouble making a good living purely from advocacy, so she supplements her income by serving as an expert witness in medical lawsuits.

Employees working at sizable companies may already have access to a health advocate. Just over half of U.S. companies with more than 500 employees offer it as a benefit, according to Steven Noeldner, a senior consultant for Mercer's Total Health Management practice. Many employees don't know the benefit exists, he says, and the services generally aren't as customized as those of an independent billing advocate.

Credential Check

Unlike with more established professions such as accounting or law, there is no standard credential to look for when seeking a qualified advocate. At the most basic level you should ask if an advocate has certifications in medical bill coding from either the American Academy of Professional Coders or the American Health Information Management Association.

Many people with those designations aren’t advocates, however, working instead for hospitals or insurers. And understanding the codes is only half the battle. Because of the complexity of our health-care system, you’ll need someone who specializes in your specific kind of billing problem.

A good place to start is Claims.org, ACAP’s website. It lets you search for experienced advocates by state. In a case like Isaac’s, you'd need someone who specializes in hospital bills. Other advocates specialize in Medicare appeals, long-term care insurance, workers' compensation and insurance for special needs children.

Privacy Issues

The best way to find the right specialist is to ask the advocate for a resume and references. This can be tricky, because laws about disclosing private medical information are so strict that some advocates have difficulty providing references. In order to do so, their clients must agree to discuss their medical history.

Stephenson specializes in hospital bill audits. She studies itemized bills line by line, identifies padding and mistakes and negotiates lower rates. Prior to starting her Austin (Texas)-based advocacy firm VersaClaim in 2002, she ran an organization that helped doctors affiliated with hospitals set up their practices. That included all aspects of hospital billing.

A registered nurse for 12 years, Stephenson has an intimate knowledge of medical terminology and hospital procedures. “I ask questions like, Are there dosages of medications that are not compatible with my medical experience in real life?” she says. “Do the charges look realistic, or is there an $85 Tylenol?”

Location Matters

Another important factor to consider is an advocate's location. State laws vary in how they regulate insurers and hospitals. For Katalin Goencz, an advocate in Stamford, Connecticut, location is often irrelevant because she specializes in Medicare appeals: “The rules for Medicare are federal and pretty much universal, so the client’s location doesn’t really matter.”

For a patient negotiating a lower bill directly with a local hospital or private insurer, having an advocate who knows the specific state regulations helps. State rules for advocates can also vary dramatically. Florida has some of the strictest. “Due to the large senior population in our state, we have a strong urge to make sure our people adjusting medical claims are licensed, competent and held to a high standard,” says Matthew Guy, a spokesman for Florida’s Division of Agent and Agency Services, which licenses and regulates advocates.

The state’s Public Adjuster license for advocates requires licensees to be fingerprinted, have a criminal background check and hold a $50,000 surety bond. “If there’s any wrongdoing by the adjuster, we can take the bond amount and use that towards restitution for the consumer,” Guy says. Adjusters must pass an exam and take 24 hours of continuing education classes every two years.

Contingency Basis

A handful of advocates will work on contingency if they think you have a negotiable claim. Most will impose strict conditions to ensure they get paid if they win. “When I started my practice, I did everything on contingency but learned very quickly that a lot of consumers who want you to take their case on contingency in the end don’t want to pay you,” says Sheri Samotin, a billing advocate at Life Bridge Solutions in Naples, Florida.

Now Samotin requires a credit-card authorization up front for an amount sufficient to cover what her estimated contingency fee will be if her work succeeds. If the client doesn’t pay within 10 days of a settlement being reached, she charges the card. Her fee is 35 percent of the client’s medical bill savings.

Samotin is unusual in the advocacy world as she is more of a generalist, taking on all kinds of medical billing problems, including those of the uninsured. She has 25 years of experience in the health-care industry, so she has the knowledge to handle different kinds of problems, Samotin says. For a monthly $285 fee she will manage her clients’ entire billing life -- a common need for seniors who have lost their capacity or desire to manage daily finances.

Instead of being a member of ACAP, Samotin is a member of the American Association of Daily Money Managers, a trade group for generalists. Only a handful of the AADMM’s 700-plus members have the skills to also handle medical billing advocacy, Samotin says. Nor does she expect rapid growth in the field.

“Because this is a disorganized profession, people entering the field have to be entrepreneurs,” she says. “They have to hang out their shingle and go out and get clients. In my experience, the majority of people who are good medical analysts and advocates are not necessarily good business getters.”

So until the profession matures, finding a good advocate will remain difficult, no matter how vital the service is.

(Lewis Braham is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh.)

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Suzanne Woolley at swoolley2@bloomberg.net

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