Private insurers using “virtual credit cards” to loot physician payments

Footing bill for insurers’ pay methods shouldn’t fall on doctors

AMA Wire, September 12, 2014

An increasingly common payment method among health insurers offers these companies significant financial rewards while sticking physicians with all the associated fees and extra work. But physicians are fighting back as the AMA and other health care associations take the issue to the federal government.

Many insurers are choosing to use virtual credit cards for claims payments to physicians, instead of sending paper checks or paying via the electronic funds transfer (EFT) standard transaction. When paying via virtual credit card, insurers send single-use credit card payment information and instructions to physicians via mail, fax or email. The physician’s office staff then processes the payment as they would a patient’s credit card.

For each of these payments, physicians are charged fees that typically amount to 3-5 percent of the total payment, the AMA explained in recent testimony (log in) to the National Committee on Vital and Health Statistics, an advisory board to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

That adds up. If a physician contractually is owed $5,000, for instance, he or she could have to shell out up to $250 in fees.

In a letter (log in) sent last week to HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell, the AMA and three other leading organizations called on the agency to prohibit insurers from forcing physicians to accept this payment method.


Letter , August 25, 2014

To:  The Honorable Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Secretary, Department of Health and Human Services

We, the undersigned organizations, are writing to you to convey our views and recommendations in response to recommendations made to you by the National Committee on Vital and Health Statistics (NCVHS) on May 15, 2014.

At issue is a type of non-standard electronic funds transfer (EFT) transaction known as a “virtual card” payment. In a virtual card payment, a health plan or its vendor sends a single-use credit card number to a provider by mail, fax or email. This is known as a virtual card because a physical card is never created or presented to the provider. The provider must then manually enter the virtual card number into its Point-of-Sale (POS) processing terminal, and the card processing network provides an authorization for the payment. The provider then receives funds in the same way as for other card payments – via an Automated Clearing House (ACH) funds transfer from the POS merchant acquiring vendor to the provider’s bank account. For these virtual card payment authorizations, providers pay interchange fees of approximately 3 percent of the value of the payment (though anecdotally some providers have reported paying as much as 5 percent). Providers are unexpectedly losing income through these card fees, which essentially reduce the contracted fee rate that has been negotiated with the health plan for a particular service or services. Many providers are understandably opposed to incurring these fees, especially when they did not choose to use this payment method and when they are faced with a manual, burdensome opt-out process that further delays payment. In many cases, decision- makers in the provider’s office only become aware of the incurred fees after receiving monthly statements from credit card merchants, as the virtual cards are processed by billing office staff without any strategic decision in the practice to accept this form of payment.

American Hospital Association (AHA)
American Medical Association (AMA)
Medical Group Management Association (MGMA)
NACHA, The Electronic Payments Association

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By Don McCanne, MD

It’s in their blood. Private insurers will always find a way to cheat others under the guise of good business practices. Now private insurers are using the scam of “virtual credit cards” in order to keep 3 to 5 percent of agreed upon payments made to physicians under their network contracts, while loading more administrative work onto the backs of the physicians’ staff members.

Thieves. That’s all they are. Thieves.


Some readers commented that the insurers do not receive the transaction fees.

It is true that the insurers do not get the full 3-5% processing fee, but, like reward credit cards, the insurers receive a rebate of up to 1.75% cash.

Private insurers are infamous for their administrative waste. With these virtual credit cards, the insurers are dumping on the providers the administrative fees associated with these virtual cards, plus keeping the card rebates. So the insurers are costing the providers 3-5% even though they are pocketing only a portion. When you think about it, the insurers are receiving roughly a 35 percent return on the administrative investment made by the physicians, and that return is being paid by the physicians. It's not even the insurers’ own money!