Deductibles in Depth – Understanding Medical Deductibles

A deductible is a set amount of medical expenses a patient must pay to become eligible for insurance benefits under an insurance program. What does that mean exactly? It means that before an insurance company begins to make payments for a patient, the patient must meet their deductible. How does a patient meet their deductible? Many people get very confused over how this is actually accomplished.

In order for a patient to meet their deductible claims must be submitted and processed by the patient’s insurance carrier. When the claims are processed, the amount that is applied to the deductible is the allowed amount for the services being billed. So for example, if the claim is for an office visit, 99213 for $80, and the insurance allows $55 for a 99213, then $55 will be applied to the patients deductible, not $80.

Deductibles can vary anywhere from $50 to $5000. If it is a private plan purchased by the patient the deductible depends on the plan the patient purchases. Plans with lower deductibles cost more than plans with higher deductibles. If the insurance plan is through an employer then the deductible is determined by the employer and how much they pay for the insurance plan.

Some people mistakenly think that the patient has to pay the doctor the amount of the deductible and then the claims that are submitted will be paid by the insurance carrier. They don’t realize that the insurance carrier must actually receive claims for the patient in order to apply them to the deductible for the deductible to be met.

The best thing to do is to call the insurance carrier before the patient is seen and inquire as to the amount of the patient’s deductible and if any of it has been satisfied yet. You must also remember, you don’t know which other providers the patient may have seen and whether or not a claim was submitted for those services.

Usually you will need to submit the claim and wait for the insurance carrier to process it and apply it to the patient’s deductible before you can bill the patient. Many providers like to charge the patient up front when they know that the patient has a deductible that hasn’t been met. This isn’t always the best thing to do since there are many factors that can affect the amount the patient owes.

For example, if you call when the patient comes in and are told they have a $200 deductible and it hasn’t been met yet, and the patient is being seen for an office visit and a urinalysis. The office visit is $80 and the urinalysis is $15 for a total of $95. You make the patient pay the $95 since the deductible is not met. However, you submit the claim and the insurance company allows $60 for the office visit and $12 for the urinalysis. That is only $72. If you participate with that insurance carrier then you can only charge the patient $72 or you are breaking your contract. You’ve already collected $95 so now the patient has overpaid.

Another problem with collecting up front is that a claim by another provider may beat your claim in. If you call when the patient comes in and they tell you the deductible is not met, you charge the patient up front. Then your billing person is out sick for a couple days, or gets busy doing other jobs and the claim doesn’t get submitted for a couple weeks after the patient’s visit. (Trust me, this happens a lot.) In the meantime the patient goes to Urgent Care where they submit their claims electronically the same day the patient is seen and their claim beats yours. Now the patient’s deductible is suddenly met, and the insurance carrier makes payment on your claim. Again, another overpayment.

If a patient has a deductible then usually once the deductible is met the insurance carrier will pay a percentage of the allowed amount and the patient will have a coinsurance. (We’ll talk about co-insurances next month.) Many plans today are getting away from the deductible/co-insurance and moving more towards the HMO/PPO plans that have set co-pays. However, it is still crucial that you understand exactly how the whole deductible thing works. There are still several plans out there with deductibles, including traditional Medicare plans.

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