Paper, Paper, Everywhere (Part I -- Tracking Your Medical Bills)

Reader Kimberley Dahline of Finally Filed helps patients and caregivers keep track of their paperwork. She wrote in last week asking about how I keep track of mine (not just when I'm proud of my labs and pin them to the wall of my office cubicle.). There was too much to put in just one post, so here's the first. We'll post the second next week.


One of the most complicated, frustrating, and time-consuming aspects of having any health issue is keeping track of the costs. Even if you know your policy inside and out, it (especially drug coverage) can change arbitrarily, with no notice from the company. I found this out the hard way when a medication I had on automatic renewal suddenly wasn't there when I needed it. The pharmacy I was using never told me that it wasn't filled, and they couldn't tell me why. When i called, I was told that the insurance company was no longer allowing prescriptions to be filled by retail outlets other than theirs. I could tell they hadn't notified anyone because there was a separate option just for that issue in their automated call menu.

I was furious. It took four calls for them to "grant" me another month of my medication, and even then they set it up so I had to go to the other pharmacy within 24 hours, which I didn't have time to do. So, I had to call again. Because, you know, I have nothing better to do with my time.

Anyway, I am sure every one of you has had a similar experience. I can’t fix that completely, but I can offer suggestions that will help keep you one step ahead of the eight ball.

Step I. Know who is paying for what. Whatever vehicle helps you pay for your medical bills (insurance, Obamacare, Medicare/Medicaid), there is going to be a portion you pay and a portion your insurance pays. Read your policy before the first of the year, when it goes into effect. It will outline how much you will pay in several categories

      1. Premium – the monthly fee for your insurance plan

      2. Copay -- the fixed amount you pay for a provider visit or drug. If you have a copay, you do not have a deductible.

      3. Deductibles -- how much you pay before insurance kicks in

            a. In-network is for providers and prescriptions that the insurance company has a lower cost arrangement with. These are usually lower than out-of-network.

            b. Out-of-network is for providers and prescriptions that the insurance company has no arrangement with. These deductibles are higher, and may or may not be partially fulfilled by the in-network deductible.

      4. Coinsurance -- the percent you pay for a provider visit or drug after you meet your deductible. Coinsurance is used with deductibles. If you meet your deductible, you continue to pay a percentage of medical costs. That percentage is coinsurance.

Knowing what you will be expected to pay throughout the year is vital to tracking your costs.

Step 2. Establish a relationship with your insurance company (optional, but recommended). This step has been made optional by concierge services offered by insurance companies. However, I still like calling at the beginning of a policy (new job, change in company, etc.) and asking to speak with a senior account manager. I tell them that I expect to be calling often and ask if they would be willing to act as my point of contact so I don’t have to keep repeating my issues to whichever customer service representative picks up the phone. The service desk folks are not likely to know the details of your plan or the needs of your condition, and looking up the answers to your questions can take a long time while you are on hold. This is also a way to keep abreast of any changes that the company doesn't tell you about.

If you decide to forego this kind of relationship, make sure you record the name of the person you speak with every time you call the insurance company, as well as the time/date, and what the resolution to the issue was. In my experience, previous conversations with customer service representatives are often either recorded incorrectly or not recorded at all.

Step 3. Reconcile your paperwork. You can do this online or in hard copy, as most companies offer their explanations of benefits (EOBs) in electronic form. An EOB is an accounting of what bills the insurance company has received from what provider, on what date, and what portion insurance paid. For each drug, lab test, doctor visit, or other medical service that is submitted to the insurance, you should receive an EOB. This will help you track your deductible and how close you are to your out-of-pocket maximum. Some statements will have those numbers on the EOB.

When you receive your medical bills from your providers, take some time to check the bills against the EOBs to make sure that the numbers match. Often, they won’t. For example, I was paying a fixed cost for physical therapy appointments, which should have ended at the therapist’s office, but somehow, I have a bill for $103 from them. This is a reason for you to call your insurance representative.

NOTE: Don’t forget to submit your out-of-network bills. Sometimes providers are not in the insurance plan’s network, as set out by your employer. In those cases, you have to pay full price up front and send the bills to the insurance company. Keep track of the date you submit these bills (I fax them.), and if you don’t get reimbursement within a month, this is another reason to call the insurance representative. (This does not apply if you are still meeting your out-of-network deductible. In that case, you will get no reimbursement until the deductible is met.)

Tips and tricks:

· Choose a regular interval to review your records depending on how often you require medical services (monthly, quarterly).

· I keep a binder, which is how my father taught me. I write details of insurance company phone calls directly on the bill I am calling about. But you can keep electronic files it that's your comfort zone. Either way, make sure you store them in a secure (these do contain sensitive information), but easily accessible location. Mine are in a locked box with my business records, right next to my desk.

· If you have to call your insurance company, choose a low call volume time of day (usually early in the mornings and at the beginning of the month), or schedule a regular time with your representative.

· Keep a written list of your condition(s) and medications, so you can see where each charge falls. You can also use it for new providers instead of filling out a form for each one. You may also want to keep a short medical history to avoid having to fill out the same forms for every different provider.

Updated: June 2nd, 2017

My father read the post last week and wanted to add some of his strategies, as well. According to him, since you have a chronic condition you may already have a Major Case Manager and not even know it.

Most payers (insurance companies) identify their most complex cases and assign experienced personnel to manage them, so that a person calling for the first time might even tell the customer service representative, who is often a first-level screener, that s/he has a complex case, and ask if a 'Major Case' Manager has been assigned. 

If one has, then ask to be connected to that person's voicemail, or if they are not available, for that person's name, email and/or phone number with the extension.   

If the screener says that no Major Case Manager has been assigned, ask to speak to a supervisor. 

If there is one assigned but the screener will not or cannot (against company policy) connect you or give the contact information, ask to speak with a supervisor. 

Screeners at this level are unlikely to get belligerent, but if they do, mention that you could always call your state's Insurance Commissioner if it continues to be an issue.

We hope it never comes to that, but if it does, you will be prepared. Always remember that they're there for your convenience, not the other way around.