Navigating medical customer service – a reprise

The following was written a few years ago, but I thought I would repost this as it might help some. By the way, some of these suggestions might serve you well in other customer service experiences with banks, retail, supplies, etc.

Before I share a few observations and experiences, let me first note that too many Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) are likely understaffed and undertrained to do the jobs they are asked to do. The healthcare system in the US is complex with a lot of moving parts, including consolidated entities on the provider side and insurer side. In other words, there are plenty of opportunities for the system to fail the customer, provider and insurer.

Through all of this, the patient has to be the navigator of his or her customer service experience. Otherwise, the patients may not realize they are not being treated fairly. As evidence that I am not personalizing this more than I am, let me mention two things.

First, I have a friend who runs a successful business advocating for insured patients. Her firm is hired by companies to help their employees and retirees navigate the healthcare insurance system. In essence, they advocate to get the insurers to pay for what they say they will in plan documents. No more, no less.

Second, as a retired benefits manager and consultant, I am familiar with the complexities, but there are people who know them far better than I. So, what concerns me is people who get maltreated  by the system and don’t know they can push back or don’t feel comfortable in so doing. The various acronyms, footnotes, poor communications, entities and touch points are confusing.

Rather than lament issues, let me offer a few tips to help in the navigation.

– If you need a pre-authorization for a surgery or procedure, start at least a week before or as soon as you can. Ask what they need and make sure they know who to call. An increasing number of providers are putting the burden more on patients to get the process started.

– On any call or reach-out, save emails or notifications, write down notes, names, dates and phone numbers – there are many, especially with centralized functions for smaller doctor offices. Recently, I was given multiple numbers to call (and addresses) from each party.

– Read your EOBs – Explanation of Benefits – including the footnotes as to why something was unpaid or pending. There may be an action needed on your part. If you have a non-ACA, non-Medicare or non-employer plan, there may be a need for medical information to confirm this is not a pre-existing condition.

– If you feel uncomfortable with asking questions of your doctor or insurer, write the questions down or include someone to advocate for you. Don’t be afraid to ask what someone said as it can be confusing or the person may not be the best communicator. And, if it is a major surgery or procedure, it is more than OK to seek a second-opinion.

– Follow-up. This is critical. Hand-offs are made to do things and the receiving entity may not confirm it has the ball. As a result, while you are waiting, nothing is happening. If medical records need to be there in 30 or 60 days, follow-up 10 – 15 days before those deadlines.

– Finally, be as diplomatic and polite as you can, but sometimes it is hard. So, be prepared to say something like, “I am sorry to be a pain, but this is frustrating.” Also, if urgency is needed, please share that need. Some readlng this may note there are websites to facilitate this process, but too often, the website does not do what you think it is doing. It may just be recording a query and not codifying an action. You may be surprised how frequentIy I have to read to the CSR what another part of the company sent me.

Again, there are many fine people in these positions who want to get things right for the patient. It is often said, good people make up for a bad structure.  Yet, it should not be as hard as it is. Until it is made easier, you must be the navigator of your customer service.

Please feel free to share your ideas and reactions.

*Note: If you simply cannot pay hospital bill after the above gets resolved, hospitals have processes in place to request an abatement to some or all of the bill. Usually, a weblink or phone number on the bill can be found. The process is not too unwieldy, given its nature. Sometimes the answer is no, but it is not uncommon for them to cut something out of the bill. Given some of the numbers are multiple tens of thousands, anything helps.