Some doctors really mean it when they say they do not take health insurance. For others, it is more of a nuanced statement.
Consumers trying to decipher the difference have to ask a lot of questions to figure out how to manage their bills.
Here are the three key scenarios facing consumers:
1. "I do not take your insurance, but I will work with you on the price."
A growing number of doctors simply are not taking contracts with insurance companies, although the concentration varies by region and by specialty. That leaves patients to pay the market rate the doctor charges, and then submit a receipt to get reimbursement for out-of-network coverage, if they have it.
In some cases, the pickings can be slim for in-network docs. For example, 45% of psychiatrists do not participate in insurance networks, according to JAMA Psychiatry.
"The burden of getting the forms right and getting all the paperwork is placed on the physician," says Dinah Miller, a psychiatrist who practices in Baltimore and co-authors a blog called Shrink Rap. "If you're seeing eight or nine patients a day, and several bounce, it's a lot of uncompensated time."
Primary care physicians are opting out, too. Some are moving to a concierge model, in which patients pay a subscription fee like $150 a month to see their doctor.
Membership in the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a conservative-libertarian group of private-pay doctors, increases by about 10% a year, says Jane Orient, executive director of the organization, which has 5,000 members.
Many doctors who say they don't take insurance will make deals with patients on an individual basis. One key negotiating tip is to know what your in-network rate would be, typically a discount of about 40%, suggests Joe Mondy, a spokesman for insurer Cigna.
You can get this information through your provider's online tools or by calling the customer service line. But Mondy says to be aware that the private provider is not bound to accept that price.
2. "I will submit the receipt for you, see what I get from the insurance company and work with you on the difference."
This process is typically referred to as balance billing. It is largely frowned upon for in-network charges, and even restricted in some states. But it still goes on in the private-pay world, and often results in a confusing morass of paperwork.
Even insurance executives find themselves negotiating the fray. Chris Reidl, director of product for national accounts at insurer Aetna, paid an up-front fee to one doctor and then submitted the bill to the insurance company. When the insurance company reimbursed the doctor for the visit, the office refunded the fee she had paid.
Consumers need to be on top of this process and pour over their benefits statements to track the various payments. They also need to keep after their doctors' offices to get their money back.
3. "I will try to negotiate a better rate with your insurance company."
Some providers have back-channel communications with insurance companies, trying to get a better reimbursement so their patients end up paying less out of pocket.
Amy Gordon, a lawyer focusing on benefits issues at McDermott, Will & Emery in Chicago, facilitates some of these discussions, trying to get everyone on the same page.
Gordon gives the example of a chiropractor who has a number of patients on one employer's plan. The going rate for a visit is $200, and the out-of-network reimbursement offered is $50. The provider has to choose whether to charge the patients the remainder or discount it.
"Being out $150 for one person is bad, but being out that much for 10 people is worse," she says. So the provider tries to get more from the insurance company, and the insurance company tries to get the provider to join its network. The insurer and the doctor may end up settling on an $80 reimbursement, and the patients only have to pay the equivalent of a $20 co-pay.
"A lot of this can be avoided with planning, and finding if there is an acceptable in-network provider," Gordon says. "If you still want to go out of network, you can ask the insurance company to give you an estimate of what they would pay, and then you can at least make a more informed decision."