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Docs Spend About $31B Haggling with Insurers Annually

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, May 14, 2009

Physicians spend three hours per week–43 minutes on average per workday–haggling over claims, credentialing, authorizations, formularies, and other issues with health insurance plans, according to a study released today in Health Affairs.

The Costs to Physician Practices of Interactions with Health Insurance Plans found that total staff interaction time systemwide converted to dollars equaled $21-$31 billion annually–an average of more than $68,000 per physician per year.

"These data are yet another indicator of the dire need to streamline healthcare administration for physician practices," says William F. Jessee, MD, president and CEO of Medical Group Management Association, which sponsored the study.

The study found that primary care physicians spend more time dealing with health plans than specialists. Nursing staff spend nearly four hours per physician per day interacting with plans; and clerical staff average 7.2 hours per day. Solo practitioners and their staffs spend up to 50% more time interacting with health plans than physicians in larger practices. Non-physicians' staff time did not vary significantly by specialty.

Douglas Henley, MD, executive vice president and CEO of the American Academy of Family Physicians, says he's not surprised that primary care physicians and their staff spend the most time haggling with insurers. "It's because of the diversity of their practices compared with subspecialty colleagues," Henley says. "It's a huge burden for the whole system but particularly for primary care."

Henley says some physician interactions with insurers save money elsewhere in the system with issues like pre-certification, "but a large chunk of those dollars are for an unnecessary administrative burden that could clearly be streamlined."

Most primary care physicians contract with several health insurance companies, Henley says, and each company may offer five or six different coverage plans. "What is the copay? What is the deductable? How much of that has been paid? What drugs are or aren't on their formulary? What are the levels or different tiers of the formulary? It's all different," Henley says."We are talking about standardizing health information technology, and we ought to be able to standardize this type of administrative complexity and get beyond it."

Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, says he can't dispute cost claims in the MGMA study "until I see what they calculated or how." However, he says, AHIP is sympathetic to providers' concerns about the complicated, time-consuming, and expensive administrative processes that he says also waste money and time for health plans.

"This is not by any means a one-sided issue," Zirkelbach says. "Everybody agrees that we have to do more in the areas of health information technology to improve efficiencies and make the system work better for everyone involved."

In response to this issue, MGMA wants a three-step reform plan that Jessee says could save about $40 billion annually.

The MGMA recommendations include:

  • Promulgation of a national health plan identifier regulation by HHS, which would simplify and improve healthcare transaction routing and save an estimated $8.8 billion annually

  • Promulgation of national electronic claim attachment regulation, which would eliminate lost paper claims, accelerate the adjudication process, and eliminate the costs associated with filing and mailing paper documents, saving $9.4 billion annually

  • Standardize machine-readable patient ID cards, which would reduce claims errors and administrative costs, and eliminate many costs associated with paper records for a savings of $22.2 billion annually

The study classified interactions with health plans as authorization, formulary, claims/billing, credentialing, contracting, and quality data. Of those interactions, practices spend the most time dealing with formularies: physicians spend 1.3 hours per week and nursing staff spend 3.6 hours per physician per week. Primary care physicians spend the most time--1.7 hours weekly--on formulary issues. Physicians and their staffs spend the least amount of time on submitting or reviewing quality data.

Henley says the problem could get worse if Medicare adopts reforms that will install the same administrative requirements as the private plans, such as for pre-certification. "If they subdivide that in certain way, that could create an additional and unnecessary administrative burden," he says.

Zirckelbach says the health insurance industry is pushing for standardization and uniformity in information exchange and administrative procedures to "help physicians to interact with all of the health plans they contract with. This is an area that we have prioritized," he says.

The survey includes responses from 1,310 primary care physicians, 580 specialists, and administrators from 629 group practices. The study does not distinguish between the interactive time spent with public and private health plans.


John Commins is a senior editor with HealthLeaders Media.

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