Tired of fighting medical providers? Hire a negotiator

Of all the bills that arrive in the mail, one of the worst has to be a medical bill.

Whether from your insurance company or medical provider, the expensive bills are difficult to understand and patients don't know if they're getting ripped off.

Add in the fact that by a conservative definition, 62% of all bankruptcies in 2007 were because of medical bills, with 92% of those debtors incurring more than $5,000 in unpaid medical bills, and a hospital bill is enough to send you back to the hospital.

With an 80% success rate of getting patients' bills lowered, Medical Cost Advocate, or MCA, negotiates with medical providers to get lower bills. It's a service that makes everyone happy, said Derek Fitteron, CEO and founder of MCA. Patients pay less and doctors get paid.

"It's not a lose situation for the doctor," Fitteron told me in a telephone interview from his office in New Jersey.

With most of MCA's negotiators being attorneys, they know how to negotiate a lower bill by providing data showing how much the same procedures cost across the country, and get the doctor paid soon instead of having to send out multiple bills to patients, Fitteron said.

I recently wrote a story for WalletPop about a Web site that lets customers bid for prices on health care before they visit a doctor. MCA turns that around and helps people lower their bills after their care. It's rare for people to know how much something will cost before walking into a hospital, Fitteron said.

"When you go in for work, or a procedure, you don't know how much it's going to cost," he said.

MCA doesn't charge upfront fees for its service, but charges 35% of whatever savings it gets. Customers don't pay if no savings are found. Once a settlement is reached, the customer's credit card is charged to pay the medical provider and MCA's 35%.

Here's an example on the company's Web site on how the process works:

If you submit a bill for $750 and MCA gets it reduced by $170, you'll pay the difference, or $580 to your medical provider. MCA's 35% cut of the $170 savings is $59.50, making your net savings $110.50.

Most bills submitted to MCA are for $1,000 or more, although they can be for as little as $200.

The most typical bills it gets are for elective surgeries, Fitteron said, such as gastric bypass and cosmetic surgeries that out-of-network providers must do because in-network doctors aren't covered under most insurance. Large surgeries that are known about ahead of time are also popular bills submitted, he said.

Either through deductibles, co-insurance payments or uninsured or partially uninsured medical procedures, the typical family spends $1,500 per year on out-of-pocket medical expenses, Fitteron said. For 10% of Americans, those expenses add up to $14,000, he said. That's a big enough reason to submit a bill for review.

Fitteron recommends getting a tax deferred health spending account through work to help pay medical bills, and for checking what coverage you have before you have to go to a hospital.

If they have the time before a major operation, for example, people should check how much insurance coverage they have for it, Fitteron recommended. Out-of-network prices are like the first offer a car salesman makes, so it's worth negotiating.

He cited a recent MCA case that dropped a Florida woman's hospital bill from $53,000 to $22,000 for knee replacement surgery. She had catastrophic, high deductible medical insurance, and her insurer only paid $3,000 -- what it was legally obligated to pay under her insurance plan.

After MCA determined what the "market oriented rate" for a knee surgery was and received some support from the hospital, the bill dropped dramatically.

It's one less bill to worry about when the mailman arrives.

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Reach him at www.AaronCrowe.net

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