Thursday, November 20, 2008

Paying for labs

Last month, we received news at my clinic from "the bosses" that we were to use only one particular lab company for all our labs except for a few types of private insurance. This news came as a surprise, and the medical providers had not been asked for any input on choosing the company. I was very disappointed, as the one that was chosen just happened to be one of the slowest in processing times. When I questioned the administration about the decision, I was told that they offered our organization the best prices for our uninsured patients. End of discussion. Since there was nothing I could do to change the decision, I tried to improve the speed of processing through our customer service representative. Needless to say, nothing has changed on that front either.

So, I went about my business, grateful each time when I had a patient who had the kind of insurance which allowed us to use a different company. But, then, last week, bammm!!! out of the blue, another dictum. This lab company who had contracted to take on the organization's uninsured patients decided that they were losing too much money on us; understandably, they cannot do thousands of labs for free. And our organization decided that we cannot keep losing money by writing off the bad debt. Keep in mind that we are a group of federally-funded community health centers (CHCs), so we provide healthcare for any and all, regardless of insurance status. The policy on labs now has changed, and our patients who don't have health insurance have to pay cash up front for labs. As a provider, I do have the ability to say that a particular lab must be done, regardless of the ability of the patient to pay. However, someone from my staff has to inform the family of the cost of the lab, ask if they can afford to pay, then let me know if they can or can't, and then I need to note in several different places whether the lab is critical or not. I already try not to do unneccesary labs on my patients since for most kids a blood draw is very frightening, so when I order a test, it is generally very important! I suppose I am disappointed because I chose to work for a CHC so that I could provide care to all. I already have to choose medications by whether they are covered or not by each particular Medicaid program, I often have to get prior authorizations for medications and radiologic procedures!

I am very bothered and saddened by this new policy. Many of the families in this community are already struggling to make ends meet. My worry is that they will stop coming in when word gets out about this policy. Fortunately, most of the children I see are covered by Medicaid, but there is a fairly large population of adults who can't afford health insurance. I also understand that our organization cannot continue to provide essentially free care indefinitely. The patients know that we do not send out bill collectors, and some of them have large unpaid bills. However, if they can come in for preventive healthcare, which sometimes includes labs like lipid panels, we end up saving money on them in the long term. I really don't know what the solution is, except that we need to address the healthcare crisis immediately.

Along those lines, I happened to come across the blog of the country doc, Dr. Cohen, discussing President-Elect Obama's choice of Tom Daschle for head of the Department of Health and Human Services, which seemed quite relevant to me, as I continue to struggle with this new policy. I admire Mr. Daschle, but like Dr. Cohen, I am concerned that he may not truly understand what is going on the ground level of healthcare. Both Mr. Daschle and his wife have ties to healthcare firms. Now, I know that healthcare firms are not inherently evil, but they are businesses which want to make money. I'm also not against making money, but I think that sacrifices will have to be made on everyone's part. I am simply hoping that Mr. Daschle will seek input from all participants in our broken healthcare system, including families, primary care physicians, specialists, pharmaceutical companies, and health insurance companies. We need a comprehensive team approach if reform is going to succeed. As a country, we have a lot on our plate right now, and I frankly don't envy Mr. Obama's position one tiny bit!


Harvey said...

It's time for universal health insurance, especially for children. These ridiculous problems disappear if everyone has health insurance.

Alex said...