Health Business Blog

Health care business consultant and policy expert David E. Williams share his views

Ambulance bill rip-off: There’s always a public option

A Kaiser Health News story on sky-high ambulance bills caught my attention; I have a long-standing interest in out-of-network billing and a more recent experience of taking a pricey ambulance trip myself.

Taken for a ride? Ambulances stick patients with surprise bills, is not a new story. To sum it up: it’s not unusual for a patient to get a bill for thousands of dollars and then to be stuck with a big part of the charge, even if that patient is insured. That’s because many ambulance companies can make more money by being out-of-network. Unlike physicians and hospitals, ambulance companies don’t lose patients by being out of network and refusing to offer discounts. After all, if you need an ambulance you wouldn’t have time to shop around, and it doesn’t affect repeat business either.

The article cites an example of a Fallon ambulance in Chestnut Hill, MA, one town away from where I live. A patient was transported to Brigham and Women’s hospital four miles away and charged $3,660, which the article points out is $915 per mile. The insurer paid about half and half was the responsibility of the patient.

In my own case I was crossing the street in a crosswalk and was struck by a car making a left turn. My bill from Fallon was $3,427.50 for a one-mile ride, so at least on a per mile basis it was much higher than the Chestnut Hill example.

But to be fair, the bill comprises a base fee of $3,350 for an advanced life support ambulance plus $77.50 per mile. That works out to exactly the same rate as what the suburbanite paid ($3,350+4x$77.50=$3,660) and demonstrates that Fallon is not mainly charging for mileage, it’s charging for the equipment and personnel being ready to show up on a moment’s notice.

Much of the ire is directed at the ambulance company for price gouging and the insurance company for leaving patients hanging. There are calls to regulate prices and otherwise tighten the rules, and I’m sympathetic.

But notice this point a little further down:

” If the injury had happened just a mile away inside Boston city limits, he could have ridden a city ambulance, which would have charged $1,490, according to Boston EMS, a sum that his insurer probably would have covered in full.”

When you call 911 to report a fire or a crime in Chestnut Hill and anywhere else near Boston, fire fighters and police officers are dispatched at no charge. It doesn’t matter what insurance you have –or whether you have insurance– it’s a service provided by the local government as part of its budget. Police and fire fighters responded to my crash, too, but they aren’t sending a bill.

Cities and towns could do the same with ambulances if they want. Some, like Boston, do. Public ambulances can still bill insurance and individual patients, but they’re less likely to antagonize patients and insurers with outrageous bills.

So while we think of policy solutions for ambulance bill rip-offs, let’s not forget that there are public options and lots of hybrid solutions, too.


By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

Blockchain for healthcare: Interview with Fluree co-CEO Brian Platz

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Brian Platz, co-CEO of Fluree

SilkRoad Technology co-founder Brian Platz has turned his attention to blockchain, with Fluree, a new Public Benefit Corporation that has introduced a scalable blockchain database for decentralized applications. Fluree is not healthcare specific, but there is a lot of potential for blockchain.

In this podcast interview we covered the following:

  • (0:10) What is a scalable blockchain database and why is it important?
  • (1:58) What are some of the most pressing database needs in healthcare? How different are they from the issues faced by other industries?
  • (3:07) What are some of the healthcare use cases for Fluree?
  • (5:15) You mention transparency and consensus as key attributes of block chain. Does that contradict healthcare’s needs for privacy and security?
  • (6:35) Who will leverage the technology in healthcare? Who is likely to be left behind?
  • (7:46) What impact, if any, will healthcare consumers and patients see as a result of Fluree?
  • (8:51) Why is Fluree organized as a Public Benefit Corporation?

By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

How formidable would Amazon be in pharmacy?

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I’m a big fan and customer of Amazon, having placed thousands of orders since 1998. I understand why retailers (and other businesses) quake in their boots at the thought of Amazon disrupting them. As a healthcare insider, I also understand why healthcare companies are especially nervous. Deep down, we understand that US healthcare is tremendously wasteful and inefficient and that Amazon could make the industry look bad and eat its lunch.

Still, I’m not convinced that Amazon is going to take over the pharmacy business, the latest topic of discussion. The Wall Street Journal (Amazon’s push into pharmacy is full of promise and pitfalls) has a piece and we’re also told that CVS’s play for Aetna is a direct result of the Amazon threat.

My own recent experience with Amazon left a bitter taste in my mouth and provided a glimpse of just how hard pharmacy could be. I don’t usually take painkillers, but the past three weeks have been an exception. Since getting hit by a car while crossing the street, I have been a pretty good customer for OTC pain meds. On a recent Sunday I noticed I was running out of ibuprofen, and rather than asking family members to do one more errand, I used Amazon to place a same-day order.

I pressed the button around 9 am, and was promised that my order would be at my doorstep by 9 pm. By around noon the item was “out for delivery” but it hadn’t arrived by 8:30 pm and I was starting to get a little worried. Nine o’clock came and went, and Amazon switched my status to “delayed.” Finally I had to ask my wife to go out to the pharmacy, which luckily for us is close by and open late. I would have had a difficult night without my refill.

Eventually Amazon canceled the order and said my address was undeliverable –a weird claim for a home that receives Amazon shipments nearly every day.

Most of the skepticism about Amazon’s entry into pharmacy focuses on new complexities like third-party payment, which are admittedly pretty serious. But my own experience shows that Amazon’s current infrastructure isn’t robust enough for the basics, so I definitely won’t be among the first to sign up for AmazonRx.

Of course Amazon isn’t the only one with shipment woes, and this experience was an exception to my usual good ones. Still, it gives me pause.


By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.