How are charges determined for primary care services?

How are charges determined for primary care services?

If you call to ask any medical office about prices, you’ll probably find that nobody is able to give you a direct answer. “How much will my visit cost?” will always be answered with some version of “it depends.” While that answer is true, a better answer might provide an estimate or range or an explanation about how those charges are generated. I’m hopeful that this article will be the best answer to that question you’ll ever receive.

This is a breakdown of every factor that goes into determining how much you are charged for a certain primary care medical service. These examples are related to primary care charges, but should translate well to specialist and urgent care charges, and at least provide a baseline of understanding for hospital-based charges.

  1. Insurance Company and In-Network Status.
  2. Benefits on Insurance Plan.
  3. Length and Content of Visit.
  4. Preventive or Diagnostic Coding.
  5. Services Provided.


As often as possible, you’ll want to visit providers that are “in-network” with your insurance. Being in-network means your provider has a contract in place with your insurance company to accept payment from your insurer and help you receive the benefits under your insurance plan.

Part of signing a contract with an insurer is agreeing to a “contracted rate” for medical services. This rate is determined through negotiations between the insurer and your provider, with some providers able to make deals for higher pay for the same services. Larger practices and hospital-affiliates can use their scale to negotiate better terms on their deals. Basically, they can get paid more for the same service because the threat of the large hospital leaving the network is greater than the threat of a small, independent practice leaving the network.

  1. Family Care receives roughly $70 for a 99213 from Aetna, one of our most used office visit codes. The closest large hospital-based primary care to our office receives ~$110 for the same code. If you have a deductible to meet for primary care services, you’ll be paying $70 at an independent facility or $110 to the large hospital for the same type of visit.

This contracted rate also varies significantly from one insurer to the other. Going back to CPT Code 99213, here is a range of rounded prices from various insurers at Family Care for the same code:

CPT Aetna BCBS Cigna United Healthcare
99213 $70 $85 $75 $70

BCBS allows higher reimbursement for the same service than most other insurers, mostly because they also have stricter standards for quality and claim management in their provider networks and provide a lot better coverage for services than other plans. However, two people that received the same service can be charged different amounts, based on the contracted rate that your provider has in place with each insurer.

If you go out-of-network, the provider is technically allowed to charge you whatever they want! There are a few requirements for limiting charges, but you’re essentially operating outside of any contracts and subject to whatever rules the provider has in place. At Family Care, we offer uninsured or out-of-network patients the same rate as our lowest paying insurer. At large hospital facilities, they’ll double the price and act like they’re doing you a favor by giving you a 10% discount.

Summary: In-network providers sign contracts to follow rules that protect the patient and allow you to access your insurance benefits, so stay in-network. Larger facilities cost more, and contracted rates vary based on the insurance company.


We just covered an aspect of the charges that is beyond your control – the negotiated rate between your insurer and your provider. This section is related to how charges are assigned between the two parties that will pay for your healthcare expenses – either the patient or the insurer. The final answer is determined based on the benefits on your insurance plan and the contract you signed with your insurer.

These days, there are two main types of plans you can decide from:

  • PPO / “Copay” Plan: This plan has higher premiums, but you pay less when you need care.
  • Deductible-Based Plan: This plan has lower premiums, but you pay more when you need care.

There are lots of options in-between these two choices, but we’re going to be over 5000 words with this article already and the exceptions could fill a book, so we’re just going to simplify things and focus on these two most common options.

If you have a Copayment for primary care services, your costs are essentially fixed. Every time you visit your primary care provider, you’ll likely owe a $X copayment. You’ll likely have a deductible for non-standard services, labs, and procedures (eg. minor surgeries, in-house diagnostic tests, EKGs, etc.), but you’ll know to expect a $X copay almost every time you seek care. Because those types of plans are fairly easy to understand and you don’t really need to worry much about factors that go into the total cost of your visit (because you only need to pay your copay, regardless of the amount of total charges), this article will be focused on deductible-based plans.

Under a Deductible-based plan, you pay 100% of all non-preventive medical charges until you have met your deductible. After meeting whatever deductible amount you have on your plan, your responsibility for future charges drops to a Coinsurance Percentage, usually around 10%-20% of all charges. This means you still have a variable rate of responsibility after your deductible, but it is calculated at a much lower amount. You will continue paying variable-rate bills at that lower percentage until you have met your Out-Of-Pocket Maximum (OOPM) for the year.

The benefit of a deductible-based plan is usually seen in your monthly premiums. Plans that cover more expenses (ie. Copay plans) are guaranteed to have higher fixed costs through monthly premiums, while plans that cover fewer expenses (ie. Deductible plans) are guaranteed to have higher variable costs based on usage. Here is a quick example of a three-month period for two different patients receiving the same care – one with a copay plan and one with a deductible plan.

Patient Plan Type Premium Visit #1 Visit #2 Visit #3 3-Month Total
Alice Copayment $700 $25 $25 $25 $2175
Betty Deductible $350 $125 $75 $225 $1475

In this example, Betty had to pay $425 more to their provider for the same services that Alice received for only $75. However, Alice also paid the insurance company $2100, while Betty only paid the insurance company $1050 in the same period. Overall, Betty owed more to the provider when they sought treatment and medical care, but still saved a significant amount in total out-of-pocket expenses by having a lower fixed premium expense each month.

As I outlined in a previous BCBS State Health Plan article, there is always a point of usage where both plans match overall expenses equally. In general, the more health problems you have, the more you should want higher premiums and lower expenses for receiving care. You don’t want an unexpected cost to be the reason you don’t receive treatment, or a reason to avoid seeking the care you need. The promise of a set expense when receiving care is valuable and lowers barriers to treatment for many people who have chronic or complicated conditions.

On the flip side, if you do not have many health problems and don’t expect to require healthcare services often, you’ll want to save your fixed expenses each month and just save money until you need care. If you save $350 per month on your premiums, but must pay an extra $100 every three months to your provider, you’ll still be way ahead on costs, overall.

The trick is to figure out which side of the chart you’ll end up on and try to match your coverage accordingly. Every insurance plan can benefit someone, but the hard part is finding the insurance plan that benefits you, specifically.

Summary: The benefits on your insurance plan determine what percentage of the total charges you’ll be responsible for paying at each visit. Better coverage means higher monthly premiums, but lower expenses when you seek care.


We’ve covered the “Insurer-Provider” and “Insurer-Patient” relationships that impact payment responsibilities, so this one is basically the “Provider-Patient” section.

For any service-based industry, time is money. If you hire a mechanic, plumber, landscaper, contractor, lawyer, or accountant, it is generally accepted that these professionals charge by the hour. The same is true for medical providers, with a few exceptions and requirements.

Primary care services fall under three main categories:

  • Office Visits. Any discussion or consultation with a medical provider that results in the treatment, diagnosis, or management of a patient’s problem, concern, or illness.
  • Preventive Services. Standardized screening services, as determined by the patient’s age, gender, risk factors, and family history. These are essentially “scripted” visits and do not necessarily consider a patient’s individual medical history when being performed.
  • Lab Services. Samples and specimens collected to obtain preventive or diagnostic lab results.

For Office Visits, you will be billed based on time and complexity of the visit. Short, simple appointments are cheaper than long, complicated appointments. Family Care utilizes coding calculators to provide accurate charges for services, which follows the current AMA recommendations and requirements for medical decision making outlined here. The entire table is a great resource, but here is a quick summary of our 4 most common codes, the non-preventive codes used for standard consults/problems/issues:

  • 99212: 10-19 minutes, minimal complexity, minimal risk
  • 99213: 20-29 minutes, low complexity, low risk
  • 99214: 30-39 minutes, moderate complexity, moderate risk
  • 99215: 40-54 minutes, high complexity, high risk

In general, your visit only needs to hit at least 1 of the 3 factors to reach each threshold. This is why time is the simplest way to understand the charges, but also why a short visit might end up being charged at a higher amount. For example, a 15-minute visit about acne would be a 99212, while a 15-minute visit about anxiety and depression might be a 99214. This difference is mostly related to the extra requirements we have from insurers and resources we must allocate to manage the higher complexity problems.

Keep in mind that the times listed are also not the amount of face-to-face time you see the provider, but the amount of time the provider takes to see you. Here is the definition of “time,” according to the AAFP:

The definition of time consists of the cumulative amount of face-to-face and non-face-to-face time personally spent by the physician or other QHP in care of the patient on the date of the encounter. It includes activities such as:

  • Preparing to see the patient (e.g., review of tests);
  • Obtaining and/or reviewing separately obtained history;
  • Ordering medications, tests or procedures;
  • Documenting clinical information in the electronic health record (EHR) or other records; and
  • Communicating with the patient, family, and/or caregiver(s).

For most visits, especially chronic conditions, your provider spends at least 5 minutes before your visit reviewing your records, results, and preparing to speak with the patient about whatever problems you have presented with at your visit. After your visit, your provider will also spend at least 5 minutes (usually more) documenting your visit, sending prescriptions, writing referrals, and coordinating your care with specialists. Because of this, a 99212 is uncommon. Most visits take 15-20 minutes of face-to-face time and 5-10 minutes of prep / post time from your provider. It is rare that an entire problem can be introduced, diagnosed, addressed, and treated within just 19 minutes, but it does happen!

At Family Care, regular office visits are charged at a 99212 (shortest) or 99215 (longest) rate about 10% of the time each, at the 99213 or 99214 rate about 40% of the time each, so a 99213 or 99214 should be expected for most visits.

Summary: You are basically paying by the hour and complicated conditions require more time. Charges are generated by the provider’s total time spent preparing, administering, and documenting your healthcare, not just the face-to-face time spent with your provider. A short, simple visit will have lower billable charges than a long, complicated visit.


Instead of a “relationship” between the provider, patient, or insurer, coding guidelines are more of a regulation that providers must follow based on CDC and World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. There are two codes that combine to determine the codes used for each visit – CPT Codes and ICD10 Codes. Each one of these codes has the potential to be used to represent preventive services or diagnostic services, which greatly change the likelihood of a particular service being paid for by an insurance company.

Preventive services are essentially screenings to identify any problems and make sure you are up-to-date on healthcare guidelines based on your age, gender, and risk factors (eg. Are you due for your mammogram?). I wrote a few thousand words about preventives services here, so I won’t go into that topic much here.

Diagnostic services essentially cover everything else, but can briefly be summarized as things that are related to health problems or concerns that are unique to an individual (eg. Knee pain, influenza, high blood pressure, etc.). Outside of your annual preventive exam and services specifically outlined as preventive under your insurance benefits, you should start with the default expectation that all services will be considered “diagnostic.”

CPT Codes are the answer to “what service did I have?” Each CPT code represents a different type of service that fits within the same standards for medical care and decision making. Every unique service is represented by a unique CPT code, with some groups of codes representing a service that is classified as “preventive.” Here are a few examples of how a CPT code works:

  • Example A: Alice and Betty both see a doctor for an in-person visit and get an EKG performed during their exam. Both patients will have CPT 93000 added to their charges.
  • Example B: Chris and Dave both have a lipid panel drawn to check their cholesterol. Both patients will be charged for CPT 80061 by the laboratory.

ICD-10 Codes are the answer to “why did I have that service?” Each ICD code represents the problem, issue, illness, or concern that explain why you sought medical treatment. Like CPT codes, ICD codes also have groups that represent a preventive or diagnostic service. The new ICD-10 system uses fun categories based on the types of problems each category represents (eg. If an ICD-10 code starts with the letter Z, it is considered preventive).

Now that we know what CPT codes and ICD-10 codes are, and the difference between preventive and diagnostic, I can explain how the relationship between these two codes ultimately determines your benefits. This table explains the possible outcomes:

  Preventive ICD-10 Code Diagnostic ICD-10 Code
Preventive CPT Code Preventive Diagnostic
Diagnostic CPT Code Diagnostic Diagnostic
  • If both the CPT and ICD are Preventive, the claim will be considered Preventive.
  • If either the CPT or ICD are Preventive, the claim will be considered Diagnostic.

Going back to the previous examples, here is what would happen with different scenarios.

  • Example A: Alice did not have any heart problems at her visit, but received an EKG because her insurance allows one screening EKG after she turns 65 years old. Betty has had two heart attacks in the past 5 years and was ordered to get an EKG by her cardiologist because he noticed a murmur. Alice’s EKG will be paired with a preventive ICD-10 code and be considered a preventive service. Betty’s EKG will be paired with a diagnostic ICD-10 code and be considered a diagnostic service.
  • Example B: Chris has never had problems with cholesterol before and had his lipids checked as part of a routine annual wellness exam. Dave has a long history of cholesterol issues and was recently admitted to the hospital for heart failure. Chris’s lipid panel will be paired with a preventive ICD-10 code and be considered a preventive service. Dave’s lipid panel will be paired with a diagnostic ICD-10 code and be considered a diagnostic service.

The same service is provided, but the pairing to designate “preventive” or “diagnostic” will ultimately determine which class of benefits the charges are considered under.

Summary: CPT codes are the “What” and ICD-10 codes are the “Why” for any insurance claim. If both are preventive, the claim will be preventive. If one is diagnostic, the claim will be diagnostic. The same service can be considered either preventive or diagnostic, depending on why it was ordered.


We’re close to 3000 words already, so we’re lucky that this section is short and easy! If you have something done, you’ll be charged for it. If you don’t have something done, you won’t be charged for it. Simple!

To make this short section helpful, here are a few examples:

  • Visit A: 20-minute visit, only. $100.
  • Visit B: 20-minute visit, plus a flu test. $125.
  • Visit C: 20-minute visit, plus a flu test, plus a vaccine. $225.

The more things you have done, the more you will be charged. Think of it sort of like a restaurant menu and ordering different items, except those items are different services.

In primary care billing, there are only about 25 codes that are used with any frequency. Things can get complicated with hospital services, visits that require multiple providers or specialties, or when any drugs are administered, but thankfully we can pretty much list every code we’ve used more than once per year.

These codes are our basic uninsured rates, so they do not consider the network contracted rates that are described in the first section of this article. Generally, these listed prices are within 10% of our average, so it can be used as a good estimate.

Summary: There is a separate fee for every service, test, vaccine, or treatment you receive. If you have more things done, you will pay more in total.


Medical billing can be complicated, but there are some basic concepts that should help you work out any problems or discrepancies and help you predict your cost of care. If you understand your insurance benefits and how your charges are generated, you shouldn’t be too surprised by any one charge. Understanding these concepts will also help you speak with your insurer or provider to dispute any discrepancies or file an appeal. Getting guaranteed medical billing information up front is difficult for a lot of reasons, but I hope this information helps establish an estimate for charges under any type of insurance plan and provides a framework for patients to understand their coverage and charges better.

If you are a patient at Family Care and have any questions about this information, please contact Ryan!

Self-Pay Lab Pricing

If you are reading this, you were probably directed by our staff to review our policies for self-pay / uninsured pricing discounts on laboratory services. We hope this will be a quick, easy-to-understand guide on how we can get the best price on your lab costs, regardless of your insurance coverage. There are a lot of ways your labs can be billed and the method that ends up costing you the least amount of money can vary based on your coverage, the tests you have done, the reasons you’re getting tested, and when you are able to make a payment. This should cover the majority of scenarios, but please let us know if you have any specific questions!

Three Ways Labs are Billed

  1. Through an Insurance Company. If you have coverage, the lab submits diagnosis codes and procedure codes to your insurance and asks them to pay for your testing. Labs that are “covered” by your insurance will be payable at the insurance’s “Allowed Rate.” The Allowed Rate is a contracted price agreement between the lab company and your insurance, where your insurer agrees to pay the lab $X in exchange for performing a specific test.
    • If the test is considered preventive, or if you have already met your out-of-pocket maximum for labs, your insurance will pay the Allowed Amount.
      • Note: Your test will not be considered preventive if it is ordered outside of your Annual Wellness Exam. Preventive tests still need to be ordered for preventive reasons to be covered. (eg. you can order a Lipid Panel as a yearly cholesterol check or as a follow-up on hyperlipidemia. One would be preventive, the other is diagnostic, even though it is the same test.)
    • If you have a lab deductible to meet, you will be responsible for paying the lab the Allowed Rate amount.
    • If you have met your deductible, but not your out-of-pocket maximum, you will probably owe a coinsurance rate, usually 10-20% of the Allowed Amount.
    • If your insurance does not cover a test, the Allowed Amount does not apply and the lab will bill you the Charged Amount.
  2. Directly to Patient using the Lab Company’s uninsured pricing. If you don’t have insurance coverage or if your insurance doesn’t cover a test, the lab will bill you their full Charged Amount. If you agree to set up a payment plan with the lab, they will apply Uninsured Pricing discounts, which are usually about 40% lower than their Charged Amount.
  3. Directly to Patient through Family Care’s client pricing. If you know in advance that a test will not be covered by an insurance, the best method is to pay up front to Family Care at the time of service. The lab charges our office a Client Price, which is even lower than the Uninsured Pricing Discount.

As a general rule, if the Charged Amount for a certain test is $100:

  • the Lab’s Discounted Uninsured Price will be $50
  • the Family Care Client Price will be $20
  • the Insurer’s Allowed Amount will be $10

I will be using these amounts in all examples, but please note that the rates vary significantly by test. This pricing structure is simplified, but the ratios are pretty consistent. Our discount with the lab is primarily based on volume, so specialty tests or tests that are not ordered frequently have less of a difference than standard, routine tests that we order often. If there is anything that is not listed in our Self Pay Prices, we can provide a quote for you within a day or two.

The Problems

Unfortunately, it is not always as simple as “just give me the lowest number.” The company you pay, when you pay them, and how they filed with an insurance all matter when determining how a claim can be processed with the lowest out-of-pocket cost. There are a lot of situations where you can predict denials and uncovered expenses, but there is almost no way to avoid that potential entirely. Here are the problems and dead-ends you might experience while trying to navigate this system.

  • If your insurance denies one test, but approves the others, we cannot just adjust the price of the one denied test. Often, someone will get a panel of ~5 different tests run through their insurance. Each test will be billed for $100, with 4 of them being covered by an insurance, discounted to the Allowed Rate, and applied to a deductible, so that the patient owes ~$10 per test. However, the 5th test was denied completely, leaving the patient with $100 owed for the one denied test + $40 owed for the four approved tests, for a $140 total bill.
    • Once the claim goes through an insurance and they accept at least some part of the claim, we can no longer offer Client Rate pricing for any of the tests on the claim. Even though our rate for the denied test would have been only $20, we would have to switch the entire order over to a client rate, so you’d end up paying $20 x 5 tests, or $100, total. It could still technically save you money, but you’d be wasting coverage for four of the tests and not optimizing your final rates.
    • If we were aware up front that the 5th test would be denied in this scenario (usually when someone is repeating a test that they had problems with before), we could split the tests into separate orders and then have you pay $20 at the time of service for the 5th test. We wouldn’t even attempt to seek insurance coverage for that test, and then try to process the other 4 tests normally through your insurance.
  • If your insurance approves all tests, that is likely the best rate you can receive. If your insurance covers a test, but applies it to a deductible, the insurer’s Allowed Rate will be lower than any Client Price we can offer. Having something applied to a deductible unexpectedly isn’t ideal, but there are no options to further reduce the price if it was an accepted test. Unless you can convince the insurer to cover the test as preventive, the deductible rate is probably your best price.
  • You need to request any discount through the lab. If something is denied, the lab will automatically bill you the full Charged Amount. To qualify for any type of discount program, you need to request it. We try to provide the lowest prices to our patients up front so we don’t run into any problems with the lab’s billing, but we cannot make any changes to your lab bill without your request. If the claim has advanced to the point where you owe the lab a large amount of money, you will need to follow the steps to resolve a lab bill listed here.
  • You generally need to pay up front. There are a lot more options available if you make your payment up front. If we are trying to fix a denied claim or adjust a date of service from more than 7 days ago, we may be limited in how we can proceed. This does not mean trying is worthless if you didn’t know this up front, but the lab is generally a lot more flexible before the test has been performed.

How to Get the Lowest Cost for Labs

If you have insurance…

  • Verify your coverage for preventive services. At your annual wellness exam, request the tests that your insurance considers preventive and ask that they be included as part of your annual wellness exam. If you want a test that is not considered preventive, or if you attempt to have these tests done outside of your annual wellness visit, you will likely owe a lab deductible amount for the tests. Still, this allowed rate will be the lowest price option available to you.
  • Verify if a test is considered a “Covered Service” under your plan. The term COVERED and PAID are not the same – your insurance can say they “cover” a test, but that just means that they will allow your benefits to apply to the claim. If you have a lab deductible to meet, you will still end up paying out-of-pocket for “covered” services. If a test is not considered “covered,” you will not receive any type of Allowed Amount insurance discount and be responsible for the entire Charged Amount.
    • Remember to clarify the slight distinction between these terms when you speak with an insurer:
      • COVERED / APPROVED / ALLOWED – These terms mean that it is an available service on your plan. Your plan will approve a claim for this service and apply your plan’s benefits towards potential payment. It DOES NOT mean that it will be paid by your insurance. If you have a deductible, you will still owe the Allowed Amount for a “covered” service.
      • PAID – This is what you’re going for. You want your insurance to actually PAY for a service, not just give you the right to pay for the service at a lower rate. Discounts are nice and all, but $0 out-of-pocket is better!
        • You want to ask “Is this lab paid as preventive?” rather than “Is this lab covered as preventive?”
  • Verify the diagnosis codes that your provider will use to file your claim. If the code starts with a Z, your provider is ordering it as preventive. If it starts with anything else, your provider is ordering the test as diagnostic. Services considered “preventive” by your insurer will likely be Paid, if the provider bills them as preventive. Non-preventive tests will only be Covered if a non-preventive diagnosis code is used, but you will most likely owe some type of lab deductible for the tests.

If you don’t have insurance…

  • If you don’t have insurance at all, there is nothing really to consider. There is no hope for coverage, so you just want the lowest rate possible up front. That would usually be the Family Care Client Price, since we’re able to pass along a better deal than the lab will give you.
  • You should request a Client Price up front and make payment to Family Care prior to having your labs drawn for the easiest process.
    • If you pay up front for the lab and still receive a bill from Quest Diagnostics, please do not pay this bill and notify Family Care. We will resolve the error.
  • For full disclosure, we earn roughly $5 per test billed at our Client Price. For example, if we bill you $20 for a test, our true cost to the lab on your behalf is probably around $15. We add this fee for the work necessary to process these changes and also allow for some of the risk involved in taking on unsecured patient debt. Considering the lab likely billed you around $50 for the same test, we feel like this is a good compromise for everyone and helps reduce costs significantly for uninsured patients.

Our goal is to reduce patient costs at all levels. Focusing on proper lab billing procedures is the easiest method for significant, easy-to-fix changes that result in lower out-of-pocket expenses for our patients. When in doubt, contact Ryan with your situation and we can provide customized advice to help make sure you receive the best price.

Appeal Denial, a Play in 4 Acts

The transcript below is a real email conversation I had with a patient who was trying to appeal a denied service. Reading this might help you avoid some of the delays we had with the appeal denial process and give you some direction on the steps you need to take if you want to file a claim appeal. The example refers to CPT Code 93880, which is a CIMT test performed at our office and often denied by out-of-state health insurance companies. You can potentially adapt the conversation to any CPT code, service, and price, as the process is very similar for appealing almost any denied service.

If you have any questions, please contact Ryan!

The Appeal Denial Begins (Act 1)

ME: We just received a denial for your CIMT test from February stating it was a “non-covered service” on your plan. That is the only information we received on our end – would you possibly be able to share the information on your statement with me so I can figure out if there is anything we can do for the appeal denial? Depending on why they determined it to be “non-covered,” we may have a few options available to get it covered. Thanks!

PATIENT: How much is it if it isn’t covered? I could dig into it a bit more, but if it’s hundreds of dollars, I’ll be extra motivated. 🙂 Are they usually covered by patients’ coverage?

ME: Yeah, it is usually covered. I was surprised to get the denial. It was $198.65, so it’ll probably be worth trying. I kind of enjoy trying to win these appeals, so I hope you’ll give it a shot! 🙂

PATIENT: I’d love to give it a shot! I’ll put that $200 to much better use. Is there any information I can send along in the meantime? I have had poor cholesterol and my family has a history of heart disease. The test revealed some unfortunate news about my “arterial age” and led to a cardiologist visit. Does that help my case? 🙂

ME: Your EOB from your insurance will probably have more details – I have attached the version I received on my end. Can you see what details yours shows? I’m not sending you an invoice since I think we can get it covered, but I can if that might help. A letter of medical necessity is one of the last options we have for an appeal, so that information should help if we get to that point. Hope it is easier than that, but we’ll see what your EOB says and go from there. Thanks!

Eight Weeks Later (Act 2)

PATIENT: Still no EOB in the mail. I wonder if I’ll ever get anything. Could we move forward in some other way?

ME: Do you possibly have electronic-only EOBs enabled? Can you login to an account with your insurance and look at your claims?

PATIENT: Good thoughts. I do have access to my online account and there is an EOB in there! I attached it. There’s not much more in there, unfortunately. What can I do to help this effort?

ME: You may need to call them to get a better reason why it was considered non-covered. Sometimes, they just accidentally call it non-covered and as soon as you try to ask them why, it magically gets fixed immediately. The EOB is good to have if we’re filing an appeal, though, so that can be your proof of a denied claim (one of the three things they’ll probably need to initiate an appeal). I know it’s a hassle, but it’s really helpful to have an actual reason why it is non-covered before trying to submit anything just so we don’t run into the same problem after an appeal.

Someone at your insurer’s customer service department should be able to answer this question: “Why was CPT Code 93880 considered a non-covered service under my plan?” The process for an appeal denial is pretty much the same no matter what, but we’d give them different content depending on why they claim its non-covered. I hope that helps!

PATIENT: Great, thanks Ryan! I’ll give them a call soon and ask that exact question. I’ll be in touch.

Two Weeks Later (Act 3)

ME: Just an update to let you know BCBS requested all records related to the CIMT service. I just sent them about 20 pages worth of notes your provider thought were relevant, so we’ll see how they respond in about 4 weeks. You should get a long letter in the mail if it is denied again, or a short letter if they approve it. Your letter usually arrives about 2 weeks before ours, so let me know which you get and I can start fixing the new outcome a little sooner.

PATIENT: That’s great! Thank you for staying on top of this, Ryan. I have so much else to do during the day, I’ve been kicking the “call BCBS” can down the road. It sounds like they’re still in the process of determining whether it should be covered. I appreciate it, as always.

Three Months Later (Act 4)

ME: Have you heard anything yet? I received a appeal denial saying it was duplicate (meaning they didn’t change their mind about it being non-covered) a few weeks ago, but nothing else. Did you happen to get a full explanation of the appeal’s denial? Thanks!

PATIENT: Huh… you know, I never received anything more in the mail, and I never checked back up on my dashboard. I’m doing that now…Okay, done looking it up. It does look like I have 2 outstanding claims and I owe ~$200, but that seems lower than I recall it being. Both are for “Vascular Study.” Let me know if there’s any more info I can get you. I should probably pay this dang claim if I haven’t already.

ME: That kind of confirms what I got – just hoping for better news from you. I’ll send you an invoice so you can use your flex card to pay the balance. Thanks for the reply!

How do I know if I am being billed the correct amount for my visit?

How do I know if I am being billed the correct amount for my visit?

As most people can understand, figuring out exactly how much a particular medical service will cost can be extremely difficult. There are a lot of variables that factor in to the final cost of any care you receive, but it is still possible to get pretty solid information and set reasonable expectations for the most common types of services you will encounter. This post is designed to help you understand the basics of the billing process to help you identify any problems and know learn how to fix them.

When you are billed by any medical provider, they are usually working with the best possible information they can get about your insurance coverage at the time of service. However, regardless of how well they might be able to predict your coverage, providers are often still sometimes just as surprised as the patient when dealing with unexpected changes in coverage and quirks with different insurance plans. Because of this uncertainty, the amount you pay at the time of service may differ from the amount you actually owe.

No matter how much your provider may try to help navigate your insurance policy, the ultimate responsibility for the balance of a denied claim belongs to the patient. The total amount you will owe is called “patient responsibility” because you’re the one who will have to pay the bill and ultimately responsible for ensuring that you are paying the correct amount. Billing errors aren’t common, but they do happen and can be fixed pretty easily if you know how to find them.


There are three things that you’ll need to keep track of to know for sure if you are being billed the correct amount by your provider.

  1. The amount you paid at the time of service.
  2. The amount your explanation of benefits stated you would owe.
  3. The amount of the bill you receive from your provider.

Ideally, #1 and #2 are equal and #3 never happens because you’ve already paid the correct amount for the service you’ve received after the appointment. For standard visits and simple insurance plans with copayments instead of deductibles, this is usually pretty easy. Your insurance says you’ll owe $25 for a visit, so you’ll pay your $25 when you check out and know that the rest will be covered. Easy. Unfortunately, there are far more instances where deductibles, co-insurances, exclusions, and other insurance hurdles will also apply to your benefits and make things more difficult to predict.

These types of “high deductible / shared percentage” plans are becoming much more common and make up all of the possible options available on the health exchange for Durham County in 2017. Because the total bills you’ll receive for these kind of plans are very much dependent on factors that you can’t guarantee before the service is rendered, the amounts you are charged for certain services are much more unpredictable.

This is where a basic checklist comes in handy:

#1. Remember what you paid.

Because most FSA plans now allow you to submit an electronic PDF of your receipts for tax purposes, you probably don’t need to save a real paper receipt of your transaction. However, you will still need to keep track of how much you’ve paid, just like any other bill you might have. You can also always refer back to your credit card statement or look at your online banking history to reference the charges, if needed. Either way, if you actually get a bill, you’ll want to look up previous payments towards your expected out-of-pocket expenses for that service and make sure they are already deducted from your total balance.

#2. Check your Explanation of Benefits (EOB).

This is a statement issued by your insurance company and either mailed or uploaded to your online member services account about 2-3 weeks after every claim filed on your behalf by a medical provider or facility. Your final out-of-pocket expenses are usually listed under a column titled “total patient responsibility” and will your insurer’s reasoning for each balance owed will be detailed on this document after your insurance benefits have been assigned to your claim. If you receive a bill because your insurer says your plan didn’t pay for something, this document will tell you why.

#3. Check your bill.

If you know what you’ve paid (shown on your receipt) and how much you should owe (based on your EOB), you can pretty much figure out how much you’ll be billed after the service.

Amount owed on EOB – Amount paid at time of service = Amount still owed

There are always exceptions at each facility you visit that may lead to separate fees associated with their services, but those are usually relatively minor compared to the total cost of care. If you think there is a problem with the amount you are being billed, be sure to contact your provider and double check to see if there are any other fees or balances that may have contributed to the difference before attempting to contact your insurance.


So, you’ve looked at your EOB and examined at your bill and the two numbers still don’t match up. Or, worse, they do matchup and the amount is significantly higher than you were expecting. Now that you have identified a potential discrepancy with the bill, what do you do about it? Your first phone call depends on where you find the problem.

My EOB and the bill from my provider both show the same amount due.

This is a problem between you and your insurer. In this case, the problem would be that you disagree with the amount your insurer said you would owe since your provider’s information matches the insurer. This means that the problem lies at the start of the claim process where your insurance assigned your plan’s benefits to the claim they received. You thought you would owe one thing, but your insurance said something else.

Here are the steps you should take to work towards a solution:

  1. On your EOB, look up the “Remark Code” for the line items that are being denied. These are generally 2 or 3 digit alphanumeric codes that reference a longer explanation of denial later on in the document. This is a summary of the actual reason your insurance is using to deny this charge. If this summary explanation does not make sense to you based on how you understand your policy, you can call your insurance company for a full explanation.
  2. When you call customer service, be sure to have your insurance card and EOB in front of you so you can reference the date of service, amount billed, and the specific line item that you are questioning. They will be able to look up your insurance policy and re-examine the specific claim you are referencing at the same time to make sure your plan’s benefits were applied correctly.
  3. If your benefits were applied correctly, the representative can answer questions about your plan and help you understand how your benefits will be applied in the future so you can possibly avoid the same situation next time. Sometimes, payment is denied because they need to update information about your insurance plan, so you can answer their questions over the phone and take care of the balance in just a couple minutes. Learning more about your policy and how your insurance will process a similar claim could make a big difference in the long run.
  4. If your benefits were not applied correctly, the customer service representative should be able to notice the mistake and submit your claim for reprocessing. If this happens to be the case, you’ll want to get a reference number for the call and notify the provider that sent you a bill. The insurance will likely give you a quote like “we will reprocess this claim and send a corrected claim to your provider in 2-3 weeks.” Whenever they give you a timeframe, double it and then call your provider back to see if everything has been resolved.

My EOB says one amount owed, but the provider’s bill says something different.

If you have carefully looked at your receipt, EOB, and billing statement and still think there is a problem that is unrelated to how your insurance processed the claim, here are several logical explanations, in order of potential likelihood:

  1. You owed money for another claim. Most of the time, your billing statement only includes claim details for the claims with a balance owed. It is possible that your provider applied part of a payment you’d made to a claim that is not currently on your billing statement because that balance was covered.
    • You paid $100 at the time of service, but $40 went towards a balance from January and $60 went towards a balance from April. Because you also owed $100 from the April visit, you may receive a bill for $40 for that claim even though you paid $100 already.
  2. You owed money for additional fees and services not on the bill. Every practice is different, but there are always additional fees that you may have to pay for services that are not reimbursable by insurance companies. These include charges for things like missed appointments, form completion, records requests, and certain lab tests that aren’t covered by insurances. Part of a payment you made may have been applied to one of these types of charges.
  3. You had a previous credit applied. Sometimes, the system actually works in your favor and you might overpay for a charge up front. When this happens, you’ll receive a credit on your account that may be applied to future balances and reduce the amount you are charged at the time of service. If you were unaware of the credit, you may have expected a service to be cheaper than you thought when you paid.
    • You overpaid by $20 a couple months ago, so your provider only charged you $5 for your usual $25 copayment. When you look at your EOB, it shows that you would owe $25 for that visit, even if you only paid $5 that day.
  4. There was a mistake. Most financial correspondence between your insurer and provider is electronic and automated, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t mistakes. As the provider, we receive batches of claim data that includes dozens of claim rows and about 20 columns of payment information per claim from the insurer and we have to sift through every row, column, and number to ensure its accuracy. As you can imagine, it is very tough to get through this process and end up 100% perfect. Even at 99.9% accuracy, that means an average primary care facility will generate about 10 incorrect patient balances per month. Before getting upset or worried about the possibility of owing for a service, have your provider double check the claim first before attempting to appeal through your insurer.

You can easily identify which one of these situations is likely to apply to you by asking for a “transactional summary” of all your claims for a certain time period. All providers may call this report something different, so you’ll just need to ask for something that shows all the charges on all claims filed by the provider and how all of your payments were applied to your account over a certain time period. This will let you see, line by line, what caused the problem.

Most of the time, any changes to a bill with an amount that differs from your EOB will always be initiated by the provider who performed the service, so it’s best to start at the source if you want to fix a potential problem. I hope this has given you the knowledge to better understand your medical bills and the confidence to discuss them with your provider, if needed.

If you have any questions related to the content of this article or if you’ve experienced any other type of situation that I didn’t address, I’d love to read your comments below. Thanks for reading!

Determining Plan Details

Determining Plan Details

One of the most common problems that people experience with their health insurance is the frustration of having to pay out-of-pocket for a service or prescription that they thought would be covered by their insurance plan. “I thought that was covered” is a common phrase with patients and most of the negative perceptions of health insurers stem from the general distrust that this reaction causes. People are skeptical about insurers covering certain things because they have been burned in the past and see insurers as being greedy whenever they end up owing more than just their premiums for their healthcare expenses. While insurers do sometimes make mistakes and deny things that should be rightly covered (which you have the right to appeal), your insurance is usually processing your plan’s benefits exactly how they said they would when you signed up for the plan. They probably even have your signature on a sheet of paper saying you agreed to their terms. Sneaky, I know.

The problem usually begins because patients misunderstand their coverage and get surprised when they see the differences in benefits from what they thought they would have to what they actually have. The new Farmers Insurance commercials are really a perfect example. Knowing your coverage could influence your decision on where and when to get treatment and help you reduce your overall out-of-pocket expenses. It will also keep you from being surprised with unexpected bills or regretting services that you wouldn’t have done if you knew the cost. You may even change plans entirely because you realize your coverage is terrible, or if you are paying too much to have coverage for services you don’t need.

Because all plans are unique, it is impossible to make a single guide that covers everyone to determining your coverage. This post is designed to help you understand the thought processes and terminology behind determining your plan’s details so you can navigate through your own insurer’s information with a good idea of what you should be looking for.

Which health insurance plan do you have?

This is probably one of the first questions you’ll have to answer and is the starting point for all other questions you’ll be asked in every possible healthcare situation. When someone asks you what health insurance you have, what do you say?

Example Insurance Card

There are two things your healthcare provider or pharmacist is always looking for when they ask this question.

  1. The name of your insurance provider. This is the most basic starting point and 100% necessary for your provider to determine your plan details. Examples include Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS), CIGNA, Aetna, United Healthcare, etc.
  2. The plan type and/or name of plan. This is the first subsection of the insurance provider and describes the plan option you chose when signing up with your insurer. Sometimes the plan has an actual name. Examples of BCBS plans include Blue Advantage, Blue Value, Blue Options, Blue Saver, State Employees Health Plan, etc. The plan could also only be described by letters, like PPO, HMO, POS, EPO, etc.

Depending on the situation, your provider might also need some additional information. Typically, you will be asked for the rest of this information if you are going to be receiving medical services or prescriptions, if you need a prior authorization for anything, or if you are being referred to another doctor.

  1. Your Subscriber Number. This is the first basic identifier on your insurance card. It may also be called your Member Number, Identification Number, or something else similar. This is the biggest and most important number on your card, so it is probably highlighted in some way. If you have dependents on your plan, the Subscriber Number includes the two digit suffixes assigned to each dependent. For example, Dad could be ABCD0000-01, Mom could be ABCD0000-02, and Daughter could be ABCD0000-03.
  2. Your Group Number. This is usually the second most featured number on your insurance card and allows your provider to see which pool of subscribers has a similar plan. This is usually unnecessary for most purposes, but is generally required if you need a prior authorization so it is good to have on file. The group number also helps providers figure out your plan details when you have private employer-based plans or some of the more obscure plans available that they might not see that often.
  3. The Payer ID # or the Billing Address. This is necessary for billing your insurance, but most providers already know the proper way to bill your insurance provider and don’t necessarily need it if you have a popular insurance plan. If your plan is based out-of-state or if you have a smaller, more obscure plan, you will probably be asked for this information. The Payer ID # is a 5 digit number on the back of your card and should be somewhere near the Billing Address.

That information will help your provider process your claims, send referrals, and obtain necessary prior authorizations. It will not allow your provider to tell you how much you will owe for a service or what types of benefits you have on your plan. Knowing your basic plan details only guides your provider so they can use the proper channels to correctly process your insurance benefits – it will not help them predict what those benefits will be, or even if there are benefits allowed for a service, at all.

Because plan details can vary on an individual basis, it is impossible for your provider to predict your benefits with complete certainty. We process the claims at the time of service with every piece of verifiable information we have available, but there are always surprises.

For example, you may pay a $20 copay for your visit. Then, after your plan processes the claim and says you are not covered for that service, you find out that you are required to pay 100%, instead. This is why it is important for you to know your own coverage – you are the person that is impacted by how your claims are processed and are ultimately responsible for any surprises that happen with your plan, so it is best to avoid them!

What are my benefits for this service?

The primary thing everyone wants to know – how much do I have to pay for this? There are several methods you can use to figure out your plan’s details for a particular service and the types of benefits you can expect to receive.

  1. Look at your insurance card. This is a “snapshot” of your coverage and usually shows the most pertinent details of your plan. The problem with relying on this is the lack of detail and explanation for your coverage for specific services, or the types of exclusions or exceptions that may be active on the plan. With most plans, this shows what you’ll need for the majority of the services you’ll receive.
  2. Reference your enrollment paperwork and benefits package. Whenever you sign up for a new insurance plan, your insurance provider is obligated to send you a detailed package that includes your plan’s coverage benefits. This is usually sent within a couple weeks of your enrollment and may be updated each year with a new packet of information. Usually, there is a table of information included with three columns – the service type, the plan’s in-network benefits for that service, and the plan’s out-of-network benefits for that service. Whenever you visit a provider or facility, reference their section on this table to help predict what your benefits will be for that visit.
  3. Contact your insurance provider. On the back of your insurance card, there should be a customer service number that you can use to ask any questions you may have about your plan. They will always give you a standard “this call does not guarantee payment of services and benefits will be subject to the plan’s details at the time of service” spiel to make sure they aren’t promising coverage they can’t provide, but they should be able to tell you what your copayments or deductibles are and how they apply to certain types of providers and services. Most plans have online portals with customer service emails or live chats, as well, but the process is the same. You’ll want to contact your provider for the CPT Code they will use for the service and ask your provider specifically about your benefits for that code.
  4. Look at how previous visits processed under the same plan. Past coverage is a good predictor of future coverage, but only if the plan’s details have not been changed. If you had a $25 copayment for a sinus infection six months ago, and your plan has not changed since then, you will probably owe a $25 copayment for a sinus infection today. This could be a little problematic because it refers to your benefits at a previous date, rather than your benefits today, so make sure your plan details have not been modified since the service you are using as a reference.
  5. Just hope something is covered and deal with it later. This is probably the worst option, but it is usually the one most people end up choosing because they are either intimidated or frustrated or confused with the process for actually understanding their benefits. Because this experience just ends up perpetuating the “patient-versus-insurance” mindset, when the two should be working together towards the mutually beneficial goal of reducing the cost of healthcare, I hope this post helps people avoid this option!

This was a basic summary of ways you can determine the details on your insurance plan.  This is the fourth post in a series on understanding the insurance claim process. In the rest of the blog posts in this series, I will explain the specifics involved in your EOB, including detailed information on the following topics:

  1. What is an Explanation of Benefits Letter?
  2. Basic EOB Terminology
  3. Determining Patient Responsibility
  4. Determining Plan Details
  5. Accessing Online EOBs
  6. Understanding Denials and Denial Codes
  7. How To File an Appeal

If you have any specific questions or topics you would like us to discuss, please mention them in the comments below and we will address them in future posts. If you are a patient at Family Care and have any questions about EOBs you received for claims from our office, please let us know by filling out our contact form. Thank you!

Determining Patient Responsibility

This is the third in a series of posts about the insurance claim filing process. The process can be daunting and seem confusing, but the basic components are fairly easy to understand if you break them down individually. The goal is to help our patients, and everyone else, understand what is actually happening “behind the scenes” when you use your health insurance. You can read the rest of the series by clicking on the link headers at the bottom of the post.

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Basic EOB Terminology

This is a breakdown of the major sections contained in the Explanation of Benefits letter you receive after a medical provider files a claim to your health insurer for medical services provided. More in depth breakdowns of specific terms will be included in future posts on this topic as we finish out the series (outline below).

  1. Subscriber Information:

This is basic identification information, including the name of the policy holder, type of plan, and member identification number of your insurance policy.

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What is an Explanation of Benefits letter?

This is the first article in a series about the Explanation of Benefits summaries that the patient receives after their provider files a medical claim. To read the rest of the series, please check out the links below.

What is an Explanation of Benefits letter?

Whenever you receive medical services and your provider files a claim with your health insurance, you will receive an Explanation of Benefits (EOB) letter in the mail from your insurer a few weeks after your appointment. If you are enrolled in an online membership account with your insurer, you may receive your EOBs electronically, instead. The EOB is an itemized statement of the claim filed on your behalf by your provider and gives a detailed summary of the amounts that are required to be paid by the patient. This summary includes all negotiated discounts and reflects the amount still outstanding after the insurer has processed the claim and assigned whatever insurance policy benefits the patient has through their insurance plan. This letter is meant to make sure that the patient is aware of the charges that have been filed on their behalf, thereby decreasing medical fraud and making patients aware of the true costs of their medical care.

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