Godzilla has risen: The insurance industry under the ACA

By Emily Dalton, M.D.

When inquired if Godzilla was “good or bad,” producer Shogo Tomiyama likened it to a Shinto “God of Destruction” which lacks moral agency and cannot be held to human standards of good and evil. “He totally destroys everything and then there is a rebirth; something new and fresh can begin,” he said.

Despite all the hopes many of us had for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the current system of medical insurance is a dysfunctional nightmare. I should know, because I am in the unique position of experiencing it from three perspectives simultaneously: that of a patient who uses an insurance plan, that of a small business owner who purchases insurance for a group of employees, and that of a physician who contracts with and gets paid by insurance companies.

As a patient, I am tricked by the expensive insurance plan I bought. Even though the card says “HSA 2000,” the deductible for my family is actually $4,000. After that the insurance only pays for 70 percent of covered charges when initially we were told 80 percent.

When I call my insurance company to address problems, I must make sure that I have several hours of free time, so that I can stay on hold long enough to get through to the low level representative who has little power to do anything. The disclaimer “Description of covered benefits is not a guarantee of payment” makes me fearful and insecure. I am at the mercy of large, for-profit corporation that is beholden to shareholders and run by greedy CEOs who do not care about me.

Having insurance means little anymore. Deductibles are high, share of costs are high, and many benefits are simply not covered. Deny, deny, deny! The company has so many devious ways of denying payment that even a sophisticated health care “consumer” can be taken by surprise. The reason for denial could be the type of treatment (no counseling for you!), or lack of a contract with a specific provider, or that your medication is non generic, or not on formulary.

Deductibles can vary depending on the type of service: medical, pharmacy, durable medical, or mental health (don’t even mention dental or vision). After my insurance denied the fourth claim submitted, I realize what is going on. In the past insurances could kick you off for getting sick or refuse to accept you for having a pre-existing condition, but now they are legally obliged to accept all comers. However, they have found a new way to shed their undesirable patients: balk, deny, hassle and ignore you until you willingly transfer your diseases to another company. Ah, insurance is wonderful – just don’t get sick!

As a small business owner, I have over 25 employees, most of whom rely on me to provide insurance. Over the past decade, we dread the arrival of each new year, because the insurance plans offered previously are cancelled and replaced by more expensive plans with fewer benefits. Typically we see the price of premiums increase by 25-40 percent. The plans are so complicated we can’t even understand them, and we have three full time medical billing specialists on staff. The alphabet soup of HMOs, EPOs, PPOs, HSAs is overwhelming, the rules that regulate the deductibles, copays, share of cost, prior authorizations and formularies can be mind-boggling, and even if you understand them, remember: Descriptions of benefits are not a guarantee of payment.

As a physician, I have had no end of problems dealing with the nine different insurance companies with which we have contracts. Our office has three full-time employees whose job it is to make sure the claims we send in get paid correctly, each according to its own set of terms. It seems that any reason is good enough for an insurer to underpay or deny payment. If we don’t catch the mistakes, we lose out.

I pay my staff their hourly wage as they beg, bicker and bargain so we can get reimbursed. Sometimes we call the California Medical Association to get help, and sometimes we yell at our insurance broker, but we don’t often reach out to the understaffed, overburdened Department of Insurance or the Department of Managed Health Care. I also pay my staff to overcome other hurdles and barriers the insurance industry has created like “prior authorizations” that are required before patients can get their medications, consults or procedures.

When the ACA was rolled out, our office was also offered a very low reimbursement rate to see a certain insurer’s Covered California patients, so we declined the contract. However, that insurer gave patients deceptive insurance cards that looked identical to those of our contracted patients, and we were also falsely promoted as contracted providers on their website.

Our office and our patients did not find out who had Covered California status and who had regular status until bills were denied, and it fell upon my staff to inform parents that their insurance had not covered their costs and that they owed us money. Dumbfounded and dismayed, families wept and raged at our medical billers.

My newest employee quit because she felt she could not continue in a job that was so hurtful to young families. After sending out patient after patient in tears, she decided the bad karma invoked by performing her duties could not be justified, and she decided to move on to a happier job. When things reach a point where your employees feel like they will face eternal damnation just for doing their job then the system is broken.

Every time the company refuses to pay for a procedure, consult or a medication, the company gets to keep the money! Every time the company suckers some poor clinic into accepting low rates, the company gets to keep the money! Every time the company “forgets” to pay a claim, the company gets to keep the money! Each time the company raises premiums, the company gets to keep the money! The worse they behave, the more money they get. Are we crazy to tolerate such a system?

The Affordable Care Act, despite the best of intentions, has fortified a monster. By mandating that everyone purchase insurance, the industry is stronger and feels emboldened to take even more advantage of patients and health care providers. Exponentially larger and more powerful than the agencies assigned to oversee it, the industry finds ways to circumvent and resist restrictions.

This leech has gotten firmly latched on to the lifeblood of American medicine, and is sucking money and energy out of medical care from all angles. Like a cancer, is has created harmful malfunctioning growths that waste our precious health care dollars. How long are we going to stand for this?

I wish “Obamacare” was what the conservatives imagine it to be and hate -- a comprehensive, Medicare-like, government-run system -- and I wish I could sign up for it.

Emily Dalton is a pediatrician at Eureka Pediatrics in Eureka, Calif. A shorter version of this article appeared  the North Coast Journal in Humboldt County, Calif., under the title “The Insurance Leech” (June 19).