So the health insurance companies have started tightening the screws on private hospitals in India. The tussle between health care services providers and the health insurance companies have been on the cards for a while now. The sordid affair burst into the limelight last week, when India’s 4 largest general insurance companies, all owned by the government of India, refused cashless services to patients in these hospitals. The insurance companies can easily do this, by throwing out these hospitals from the network of hospitals, whose patients are entitled to this benefit. The fine print that you and I sign, while buying an insurance policy says that we are entitled to cashless services in select hospitals only and the insurance companies can change this network at their sweet will.
Well, for the uninitiated here is what the problem is. Health Insurance companies believe that hospitals overcharge patients who have an insurance cover simply because the money is to come from the insurance companies. Insurance companies for long have been asking hospitals to agree to fixed rates for some common procedures and surgeries. The hospitals have been resisting this as they believe that these rates are too low and in medicine, it is quite impossible to have fixed packages for surgical procedures etc. Large private sector hospitals, who offer high standards of medical care and pride themselves on their state of the art equipment, doctors, nurses etc. believe that at the rates offered by these PSU insurers, they will not be able to maintain their standards and lose money. Thus the impasse.
Now, here is the truth. The insurance companies by and large are right in accusing the private hospitals of overcharging patients who have an insurance cover. However, in many hospitals this is not deliberate. It is just that if a doctor is in doubt about ordering a test, he invariably would ask for the test, if the payor is not the patient but is an insurance company. This is largely because he wants to be sure of his diagnosis and reduce the risk of his clinical judgement being wrong. Now one may argue that the additional test, constitutes better healthcare and the doctor is well with in his right to ask for it and viewed from this perspective, this would hardly qualify as ‘overcharging’.
The other reason for inflated bills is that we as consumers do not feel the pinch even if the hospital bill is more than what we had thought it might be at the beginning of the hospitalisation. Since the insurance company is paying we would insist on top of the line stuff for ourselves. It hardly matters, whether we really need it or a cheaper option might have been just as effective, things that we would surely consider if we were paying out of our own pocket. I recall when my father underwent a prostate surgery last year, we ran up a bill of close to Rs. 200000, which I thought was on the higher side. However, since we had insurance, I hardly felt the need to either question the doctor or the hospital. I believe, mostly this apathy of the hospital as well as the consumers towards insurance payouts inflates the bills.
Apart from inflated bills the insurance companies also believe that hospitals defraud them by manipulating patient histories and making claims on behalf of the patients, who would otherwise be ineligible for the claim. This mostly happens if a patient has a pre-existing condition (ordinarily not covered), which the hospital’s doctors would try to hide from the insurance companies. Well, there is a grain of truth in this as doctors occasionally do try to ‘help’ their patients. This is mostly on the request of patients, who desperately want to make a claim even when they know that they are not eligible. The doctors try to oblige their patients either because they have an existing relationship with the patient or when they fear that if they do not ‘help’ the patient he will go to another doctor, who will do the needful. Thus losing a patient for something like this makes little sense to them.
The insurance companies on the other hand are always looking at ways and means of denying hospitals claims, which are perfectly payable. They arbitrarily make deductions citing obscure and often questionable reasons. Many a times they release the hospital’s payments without even informing them that they have deducted part of the money. The payments are rarely made on time, the third-party administers (TPA’s) working for the insurance companies are given targets to reduce payouts to hospitals and the system is hugely inefficient. Hospitals have to incur costs by hiring people, whose only job is to follow-up with the insurance companies and TPA’s about the money owed to them.
A summary cessation of cashless facilities in private sector hospitals is hardly the solution that works. The insurance companies need to work together with the hospitals to sort out their differences on a case to case basis. The hospital as well as the insurance companies must appoint reasonably experienced and mature people to manage these relationships, who should regularly meet and discuss all cases, where the insurance company feels that the hospital has overcharged. These cases should be thoroughly investigated and if a doctor is found complicit, he should be asked to explain. The insurance companies and the hospitals should organise training programs for the doctors, making them aware of how ‘helping’ patients helps no one. If the insurance company finds a hospital’s administration itself involved in shady practices than of course they must throw the hospital out of their network. On pricing, the insurance companies must accept that hospitals have a right to price their services as they deem fit. Most hospitals will price themselves according to the quality of their services, the pull of their brand and the existing market realities. The insurance companies must accept these prices and maybe they can ask for some discounts based on the volume of business they conduct with a particular hospital. Dictating prices to a hospital is bad policy as the hospital when squeezed hard will cut corners thus compromising on patient care.
Finally as consumers, it also devolves on us to be more prudent about our healthcare spends in a hospital. We should be as careful with the insurance money as we would be with our own. If we don’t and the insurance companies keep bleeding we will either end up paying higher premiums or worse, will have no cashless services in spite of having an insurance cover.