How Health Insurers Have Made Appealing Denials So Complicated
Cheryl Clark for ProPublica 01 September 2023
This story was originally published by ProPublica.
Have you ever had a health care claim denied by your insurer? Ever tried to appeal it? Did you wind up confused, frustrated, exhausted, defeated?
I’ve been a health care reporter for more than 40 years. And when I tried to figure out how to appeal insurance denials, I wound up the same way. And I didn’t even try to file an actual appeal.
ProPublica came to me earlier this year with what might have seemed like a simple proposition. They wanted me to create an interactive appeals guide that would help readers navigate their insurers’ maze. (A team of reporters at ProPublica and The Capitol Forum has been investigating all the ways that insurers deny payments for health care. If you’ve got a story to share, let them know here.)
Over the next several weeks, I spoke with more than 50 insurance experts, patients, lawyers, physicians and consumer advocates. Nearly everyone said the same thing: Great idea. But almost impossible to do. The insurance industry and its regulators have made it so complicated to file an appeal that only a tiny percentage of patients ever do. For example, less than two-tenths of 1% of patients in Obamacare plans bothered to appeal claims denied in 2021.
The central problem: There are many kinds of insurance in the U.S., and they have different processes for appealing a denial. And no lawmakers or regulators in state and federal governments have forced all insurers to follow one simple standard.
I tried to create a spreadsheet that would guide readers through the appeals process for all the different types of insurance and circumstances. When a patient needs care urgently, for instance, an appeal follows a different track. But with each day of reporting, with each expert interviewed, it got more and more confusing. There was a point when I thought I was drowning in exceptions and caveats. Some nights were filled with a sense that I was trapped in an impossible labyrinth, with signs pointing to pathways that just kept getting me further lost.
Here are some of the issues that make it so confusing:
First, people have to know exactly what kind of insurance they have. You may think that UnitedHealthcare is your insurer because that’s the name on your insurance card, but that card doesn’t tell you what kind of plan you have. Your real insurer may be your employer. Some 65% of workers who get their coverage through their employers are in what’s known as “self-funded plans,” according to KFF (formerly Kaiser Family Foundation). That means the employer pays for medical costs, though it may hire an insurance company like UnitedHealthcare to administer claims.
The other main type of insurance that companies provide for their workers is known as a “fully insured plan.” The employer hires an insurer to take all the risk and pay the claims. With that kind of plan, the name on your card really is your insurer. Why does this difference matter? Because the route you follow to challenge an insurance denial can differ based on whether it’s a fully insured plan or a self-funded one.
But all too often people don’t know what kind of plan they have and aren’t really sure how to find out. I’m told that some employers’ human resources departments don’t know either — although they should.
“It is a little scary, because people honestly don’t really know what they have,” said Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow at KFF who specializes in health insurance research. “I’m just going to warn you that if you set up the decision tree with an A: yes, B: no, or C: not sure, you’ll find a lot of people clicking not sure.”
Government insurance is its own tangle. I am a Medicare beneficiary with a supplemental plan and a Part D plan for drug coverage. The appeals process for drug denials is different from the one for the rest of my health care. And that’s different from the process that people with Medicare Advantage plans have to follow. Continue Reading…
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