Customer Disservice: Health Care #FAILs again and again

Disservice (dĭs-sûr’vĭs)

  1. A harmful action; an injury
  2. An act that is not just

Our health care system is completely devoid of customer service. It is pathetic.

I took my son to have a simple tympanostomy (ear tubes) procedure this morning. I show up, sign in and take my seat amidsts the throngs of people in the surgical center waiting room. I brought my laptop and some reading materials to bunker down for the long wait ahead.

20 minutes later I get called up front to sign some additional paperwork. Instead of being greeted, 15 documents each complete with a full page of legalese is shoved my way regarding various aspects of responsibility, payment, agreement, arbitration, and host of other information. The grumpy lady has clearly done this a thousand times and she has absolutely no tolerance for any of my questions. She paries my first few skillfully, but I don’t let her blunt my questions regarding the finances.

She shows me that the facility is charging me $5,600 but that fee has been reduced by the insurance to $1,799. This is an all in fee for the facility only (includes staff, equipment, monitoring, etc) and does not include fees charged by the physician and the anesthesiologist. I ask what those charges will be (I already knew ahead of time), but she says she is not responsible for their charges and that I would have to speak with those providers about that. I start asking her why they don’t bundle everything into one price so I can compare across various combinations of facilities and providers. She has no idea what I am talking about and ends the conversation by giving me their phone numbers. Take your seat Mister, how dare you ask a question about pricing comes across clearly as she stares me down to my seat.

I immediately pick up the phone and talk to the physician office. After about 10 minutes, I finally get the billing person who is able to provide me the CPT code (69436) and Zip Code (92691) as well as what they charge for procedure ($345). I tell here I am not interested in her price because it is irrelevant and that Blue Cross has already dictated the price that you are going to get. A little defensive, she then relays to me the the administratively set Blue Cross reimbursement that has been dictated to this particular physician ($208.08).  I then ask her about bundling of services and created an Ear Tube product that would include all the components so that I can compare across facilities and providers. She has no idea what I am talking about. I give her the hamburger example (I don’t get separate receipts for tomoatoes, buns, and burger – I get a single price for the thing I want – the complete hamburger). I refer her to as an example and she thinks this sounds like a good idea.  When I ask why they don’t do it now that she understands, she says that she doesn’t think the physicians would ever agree to work in that way. She tells me she will pass this along to the physicians, and with a laugh that indicates that will never happen, we end the call.

Next, I call the anesthesiologist group. First the lady attempts to tell me she can’t give the pricing because it is a HIPAA violation. I quickly disabuse her of her ignorance and get her manager on the phone. Anesthesia is unique in all of medicine because anesthesiologist charge for their time in increments called units (typically 15 minutes). So they get a “set up” fee and a “time-based” fee for their services, both in terms of units. So I ask them what their per unit charge is and the manager tells me that it is proprietary information. I call him out on it and say that pricing information is not proprietary, perhaps his costs structure is, but he has a duty to tell me the cost of the service I am about to engage him in. I am pretty frothy at this point and really lay into this guy. He still refuses to tell me his proprietary, negotiated per unit rate with Blue Cross but relents on giving me the overall price. He then passes me along to someone else who looks up in their database and tells me the cost will be either $300 or $360 for the procedure for either a 15 minute or 30 minute anesthesia time. So, knowing they go in 15 minute unit increments, I can tell that there is either 5 or 6 units involved, and therefore a $60 / unit price. So, full pricing is 4 units “setup” and either 1 or 2 units for their time. So much for your proprietary formula and negotiated pricing. $60 bucks every 15 minutes or $240/hour for anesthesiologist time. Thats mid-tier lawyer rates for South Orange County but interesting in how at least this type of physician’s time might be valued by insurance companies.

So finally, after about 45 minutes of phone time, by someone who knows the ins and outs, all the secret handshakes and covert codes, and most aspects of healthcare financing, I am able to arrive at an all in price for a very simple surgical procedures:

CPT Code: 69436
Zip Code: 92691
Facility Fee: $1,699.00
Surgeon Fee:  $208.08
Anesethsiologist Fee: $360.00
TOTAL:  $2,267.08

This is great to know the price information for my selected combination of facility and physicians. However, I have no information on outcomes achieved, safety rates, customer satisfaction, or other metrics to determine if I would not be better off with a different combination of facilities and physicians. What do you think the response was when I attempted to ask about health outcomes for my physician?

Pin drop, anyone?

This is not just another rant, but meant to highlight that the very basic, fundamental courtesies expected during a consumer transaction are all but non-existent in health care. Simple things like getting pricing information, like getting helpful customer service, like understanding what you are buying, and the quality features that attract you to purchase something in the first place. Health care should be one area where customer service is impeccable. I believe you begin to see “brands” emerge that get this, invest in it, and deliver it consistently over time. Looking forward to the ongoing retailization of health care – it truly needs it.