Risk Management

Payment Issues: Avoid Delays in Treatment

Hans Bruhn, MHS, OMIC Senior Risk Management Specialist

Digest, Winter 2011

By the time a patient is referred and examined by an ophthalmic specialist, he probably has already been seen by a primary care physician and a general ophthalmologist. Most health insurers require patients to go through a referral process before they can be seen by a specialist. This can be problematic if the patient’s eye condition requires rapid diagnosis and treatment by the specialist. Critical care can also be delayed when patients do not have health insurance and cannot pay out of pocket for these services. When delays in critical care result in less than desired or poor outcomes, some patients will file a claim against the specialist and all referring health care providers, alleging failure to provide timely treatment.

Q  Can I withhold care because of a patient’s inability to pay (including co-pays)?

A  This is always a tricky situation. Ophthalmologists may be required to collect co-pays or deductibles by third party insurers. If emergent care is needed, we recommend separating payment issues from decisions about care. Proceed with providing as much care as possible and sort out the financial issues after the patient is stable. This will avoid delays in treatment and reduce the risk of a claim. Notify the insurance company of the urgent care situation and the patient’s inability to pay the co- payment. The insurance company may allow you to waive the co-payment; however, waiving fees without first checking with the insurer can jeopardize your provider contract. You should make a reasonable effort to work out a payment plan with the patient; document your efforts and the results.

You may have less control over the situation in a surgical facility or hospital setting that requires payment up front as a condition of admission. But before you send the patient elsewhere, act as the patient’s advocate. Explain to the facility the urgent nature of the required treatment and ask if it will work out a payment plan with the patient. If not, promptly refer the patient to another facility that may be willing to do so. If all attempts fail, it may be necessary to refer the patient to the local emergency room, where federal law mandates that treatment be provided. Throughout this process, keep the patient informed about your efforts on his behalf. This will help reduce the likelihood that you will be perceived by the patient as withholding care. Document carefully.

Q  During follow-up, I noted that a patient I first saw in the ER needed surgery. Since I am not part of her HMO, I promptly called her primary care physician to secure a referral to a participating ophthalmologist, but the PCP was out of town. What action should I take?

A  Advise the patient about the situation (PCP is not available; surgery is needed and you are not in her insurance provider network). If the patient elects to pay out of pocket, get that in writing and proceed with care. If not, help the patient find another provider to assume care. Contact her HMO directly and request a referral to another ophthalmologist. Once another provider is identified, contact that new physician and facilitate transfer of care along with patient authorization and your recommendation for surgery. Advise the patient of your actions and document accordingly.

Q  A patient that I have been treating since June 2008 has developed a serious corneal ulcer (OS), possibly fungal. I prescribed Natamycin drops, but the patient has not gotten the drops and has canceled follow-up appointments because of the cost. The patient is blind in his right eye, and now his left eye is compromised with this serious condition. Am I obligated to continuing seeing him?

A  Contact the patient and tell him of your concern. Explain that many patients are having trouble affording care and ask if his financial situation is keeping him from getting the care he needs. Advise him of the seriousness of his eye condition, including the consequences of not using the drops you prescribed and not coming in for exams. Given the urgency of the situation in this functionally monocular patient, encourage him to come in to see you so you can conduct an exam and provide care, including drops, if possible. If the patient is still reluctant to see you, ask if there are any relatives to assist him. Offer to set up a payment plan for incurred medical expenses. As a last resort, advise the patient to go to the nearest emergency room for care. If the patient refuses, document your discussion and send a letter reiterating your recommendations and explaining again the consequences of not getting care. If the patient does not respond to your discussions and letter, consider sending OMIC’s “noncompliance” letter, which gives the patient one last chance to come in for care before the physician-patient relationship is terminated.

Contact OMIC’s Risk Management department for assistance or visit our web site, www.omic.com, for our recommendation “Discontinuing Treatment for Financial Reasons and Noncompliance Guidelines.”

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