Dr. Sawyer believes that what Anthem is doing to him and other physicians reflects its desire to increase profits by netting extra revenue and keeping physicians’ money while it delays payments to them – a practice known in the trade as “the float.” Moreover, he says, the company depends on many practices not keeping track of their finances during the pandemic.
“When practices are running at warp speed, trying to keep people healthy and getting burned out, they aren’t paying as close attention to the details of payment. It’s an absolute revenue-grab strategy that’s unconscionable,” says Dr. Sawyer.
The Southeast internist also thinks that insurance companies other than Anthem – including United and Humana – are profiting from the float. Besides delaying his payments with gratuitous demands for documentation, he said, they also downcode many claims, forcing the practice to refile the claims and appeal. That forces the practice to pay overtime or bring on more claims staff, which raises administrative costs.
The plans’ strategy, the internist says, is this: “If they downcode millions of claims, a certain number of physicians will give up without appealing, and they’ll raise their profits.”
A United spokesperson said in an interview, “We pay claims appropriately under members’ plans and within the required time frame.” Humana had not responded to this news organization’s request for comment at press time.
Challenge to practice economics
Insurer policies that delay payments or downcode claims, ECG’s Mr. Donohue points out, are especially harmful to primary care and other ambulatory practices that have many small-dollar claims.
“That’s where it’s challenging, because it’s not like a $10,000 case where you add $100 to it [to meet records requests]. You’re talking about something that’s relatively low dollar, where the practice makes a small surplus, and when you add administrative costs, it can change the economics,” he says.
While the economic burden on ambulatory care practices may be greater, Anders Gilberg, senior vice president of government affairs for the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA), said that the payment delays and demands for documentation – along with prior authorization – particularly affect inpatient care. The health plans are questioning big-ticket items more than ever, he said, and most of those services occur in hospitals.
However, the greater level of insurer scrutiny also affects physicians who treat patients in the hospital, including surgeons and emergency department physicians who contract with the facilities, he adds.
Mr. Gilberg views the current situation as an exacerbation of the health plan policies that physicians have long struggled with. “It’s not new to have insurers play the float and not pay claims on time. Unfortunately, this is something that medical practices are used to.”
A version of this article first appeared on.