More and More Doctors Are Billing for Email Advice

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What happened

Email medical advice is costing patients anything from copays of $3 to charges of $100, according to recent reports. Not only has the volume of email consultations increased dramatically in recent years, but new billing rules allow healthcare providers to charge for so-called "e-visits." As a result, some doctors now charge for the service.

So what

As a patient, the idea that you might have to pay for email communications on top of other healthcare costs can be very disturbing, especially if you're not clear on what you might be charged. Some patient advocate groups believe it could stop people seeking medical advice and become a barrier to access.

On the other side, healthcare providers say it's a necessary step because responding to emails and online queries takes considerable amounts of time. A spokesperson for the Cleveland Clinic told the New York Times, "Billing a patient’s health insurance supports the necessary decision-making and time commitment of our physicians and other advanced professional providers."

Now what

Don't allow a fear of being billed stop you from emailing your doctor to get the advice you need. Only a small percentage of emails to clinics carry fees and providers say patients should be told before they're charged. If you're worried, speak to your medical provider to find out whether you might be billed for emails and what you might have to pay.

Technically, an e-visit is anything that takes more than five minutes of a clinician's time across a single week. You might have to pay for emails that require medical expertise, such as a change in medication or an opinion on a rash. But there's no charge for services like refilling a prescription or scheduling an appointment.

More widely, if you're concerned about running up big medical bills, there are a few steps you can take.

  • Understand what your health plan covers: Knowing what is or is not included in your health insurance can make a big difference to your bank balance. For example, if you're entitled to routine health screenings, don't miss them as you may catch treatable illnesses early. Check what procedures require preauthorization and stay in-network where possible.
  • Look for ways to reduce prescription charges: Opt for generic drugs rather than big name products and see if you can order regular prescriptions by mail in bulk.
  • Investigate tax advantaged health accounts: If you have a high-deductible health insurance plan, you may be able to open a health savings account (HSA). It's a type of savings account that lets you put money aside on a tax-deferred basis to cover health costs. Your company might also offer a Healthcare Flexible Savings Account (FSA).

Another way to save money on healthcare is to stay healthy. Your diet, exercise habits, and lifestyle can all make a big difference to your medical needs. Sadly, a healthy lifestyle won't always keep the doctor at bay, but it can help.

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