Doctors pay millions in fees that could be spent on care

ProPublica – Imagine if each time your wages were deposited in your bank account, your employer deducted a fee of 1.5% to 5% to provide the money electronically.

That, increasingly, is what health insurers are imposing on doctors. Many insurers, after whittling down physicians’ reimbursements, now take an additional cut if the doctor prefers — as almost all do — to receive funds electronically rather than via a paper check.

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Such fees have become routine in American health care in recent years, according to an investigation by ProPublica published on Monday, and some medical clinics say they’ll seek to pass those costs on to patients.

Almost 60% of medical practices said they were compelled to pay fees for electronic payment at least some of the time, according to a 2021 survey.

“An industry of middlemen had begun sprouting up, processing payments for insurers and skimming fees off the top.” 

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With more than $2 trillion a year of medical claims paid electronically, these fees likely add up to billions of dollars that could be spent on care but instead are going to insurers and middlemen.

Congress had intended the opposite to happen. When lawmakers passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010, they encouraged the use of electronic payments in health care. Direct deposits are faster and easier to process than checks, requiring less labor for doctors and insurers alike.

“The idea was to lower costs,” says Robert Tennant of the Workgroup for Electronic Data Interchange, an industry group that advises the federal government.

When the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services created rules for electronic payments in 2012, the agency predicted that shifting from paper to electronic billing would save $3 billion to $4.5 billion over 10 years …

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