Doctor Got COVID-19 Test From His Medical Employer, Test Price Was $10,984, Doctor Quit Job

This story was published originally by ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

(Photo Credit: Physicians Premier Emergency Room – Everhart/YouTube)

When Dr. Zachary Sussman went to Physicians Premier ER in Austin for a COVID-19 antibody test, he assumed he would get a freebie because he was a doctor for the chain. Instead, the free-standing emergency room charged his insurance company an astonishing $10,984 for the visit — and got paid every penny, with no pushback.

The bill left him so dismayed he quit his job. And now, after ProPublica’s questions, the parent company of his insurer said the case is being investigated and could lead to repayment or a referral to law enforcement.

The case is the latest to show how providers have sometimes charged exorbitant prices for visits for simple and inexpensive COVID-19 tests. ProPublica recently reported how a $175 COVID-19 test resulted in charges of $2,479 at a different free-standing ER in Texas. In that situation, the health plan said the payment for the visit would be reduced and the facility said the family would not receive a bill. In Sussman’s case, the insurer paid it all. But those dollars come from people who pay insurance premiums, and health experts say high prices are a major reason why Americans pay so much for health care.

Sussman, a 44-year-old pathologist, was working under contract as a part-time medical director at four of Physicians Premier’s other locations. He said he made $4,000 a month to oversee the antibody tests, which can detect signs of a previous COVID-19 infection. It was a temporary position holding him over between hospital gigs in Austin and New Mexico, where he now lives and works.

In May, before visiting his family in Scottsdale, Arizona, Sussman wanted the test because he had recently had a headache, which can be a symptom of COVID-19. He decided to go to one of his own company’s locations because he was curious to see how the process played out from a patient’s point of view. He knew the materials for each antibody test only amounted to about $8, and it gets read on the spot — similar to an at-home pregnancy test.

He could even do the reading himself. So he assumed Physicians Premier would comp him and administer it on the house. But the staff went ahead and took down his insurance details, while promising him he would not be responsible for any portion of the bill. He had a short-term plan through Golden Rule Insurance Company, which is owned by UnitedHealthcare, the largest insurer in the country. (The insurance was not provided through his work.)

During the brief visit, Sussman said he chatted with the emergency room doctor, whom he didn’t know. He said there was no physical examination. “Never laid a hand on me,” he said. His vitals were checked and his blood was drawn. He tested negative. He said the whole encounter took about 30 minutes.

About a month later, Golden Rule sent Sussman his explanation of benefits for the physician portion of the bill. The charges came to $2,100. Sussman was surprised by the expense but he said he was familiar with the Physicians Premier high-dollar business model, in which the convenience of a free-standing ER with no wait comes at a cost.

“It may as well say Gucci on the outside,” he said of the facility. Physicians Premier says on its website that it bills private insurance plans, but that it is out-of-network with them, meaning it does not have agreed-upon prices. That often leads to higher charges, which then get negotiated down by the insurers, or result in medical bills getting passed on to patients.

Sussman felt more puzzled to see the insurance document say, “Payable at: 100%.” So apparently Golden Rule hadn’t fought for a better deal and had paid more than two grand for a quick, walk-in visit for a test. He was happy not to get hit with a bill, but it also didn’t feel right.

He said he let the issue slide until a few weeks later when a second explanation of benefits arrived from Golden Rule, for the Physicians Premier facility charges. This time, an entity listed as USA Emergency sought $8,884.16. Again, the insurer said, “Payable at: 100%.”

USA Emergency Centers says on its website that it licenses the Physicians Premier ER name for some of its locations.

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