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Health beat: Offhand 'surgery' costs $352, annoys patient

  • Article by: Jeremy Olson
  • Star Tribune
  • May 4, 2014 - 7:30 AM

Be careful what you wish for — or at least agree to — when you’re at the doctor’s office.

That’s the message Sherry Becker of New Brighton wants to spread after a seemingly innocuous offer of a wart treatment at her clinic ended up producing a $352 bill for what her insurer declared to be surgery.

It started March 14, when Becker sought treatment at her primary care clinic in St. Anthony for a thumb injury. While she was there, a physician assistant noticed a wart and asked if she’d want a treatment that was better than what she was using at home.

“She spent five seconds putting a drop of acid solution on the wart and then applied a Band-Aid,” Becker said. “I honestly thought she did this for free since it was so very minor and she had brought it up.”

Until the bill showed up from her insurer, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield of Richmond, Va. It informed Becker that she would be responsible for a $300 deductible to cover the surgical procedure.

Further investigation led her into the bizarre world of medical billing. Turns out her clinic billed the insurer properly, using the standard payment code for the removal of one to 14 benign skin lesions.

Had she known she was paying a bulk rate, she quipped, she would have found 13 more blemishes to burn off. “Being charged for ‘up to 14,’ rather than one, is tantamount to price fixing,” she said.

While frustrated that she wasn’t given more upfront information, Becker admits she was naive to think her clinic was offering free care. She hopes others will learn from her mistake and ask for the prices of elective procedures — especially in an era of high-deductible health plans in which patients are responsible for more of their costs.

Clinics should be able to furnish that information, she added. “You know, when you have work done on your car, you get an estimate.”

Becker agreed to pay her deductible in 14 monthly installments — one for the procedure received and 13 for those she feels she is paying for but didn’t receive. Justice will come in nastygrams such as “unethical billing” that she intends to write in the memo lines of the 13 checks.

“Once a month,” she said. “I get to vent.”

© 2014 Star Tribune