When That Supposedly Free Annual Physical Generates a Bill

She filled out a mental-health questionnaire she was asked to complete and her doctor charged her for briefly discussing her responses.

By Julie Appleby, KFF Health News

Christine Rogers of Wake Forest, North Carolina, didn’t hesitate when she was asked to fill out a routine mental health questionnaire during a checkup last November.

Her answers on the form led her primary care doctor to ask about depression and her mood, and Rogers said she answered honestly.

“It was a horrible year. I lost my mom,” Rogers said she told her physician.

After what Rogers estimates was a five-minute conversation about depression, the visit wrapped up. She said her doctor did not recommend treatment nor refer her for counseling.

“It’s not like anything I told her triggered, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m going to prescribe you medication,’” she said.

Then the bill came.

The Patient: Christine Rogers, 60, a public relations/communications worker who is insured by Cigna Healthcare through her job.

Medical Services: An annual wellness visit, which included typical blood tests, as well as a depression screening and discussion with a physician.

Service Provider: WakeMed Physician Practices, part of WakeMed Health & Hospitals, a Raleigh-based, tax-exempt system with three acute care hospitals, outpatient centers, and hundreds of physicians across a range of specialties.

Total Bill: $487, which included a $331 wellness visit and a separate $156 charge for what was billed as a 20- to 29-minute consultation with her physician. Her insurer paid $419.93, leaving Rogers with a $67.07 charge related to the consultation.

What Gives: Rogers said the bill came as a surprise because she knows annual wellness checks are typically covered without patient cost sharing as preventive care under the Affordable Care Act. And as part of an annual physical, patients routinely fill out a health questionnaire, which may cover mental health topics.

But there is a catch: Not all care that may be provided during a wellness visit counts as no-cost preventive care under federal guidelines. If a health issue arises during a checkup that prompts discussion or treatment — say, an unusual mole or heart palpitations — that consult can be billed separately, and the patient may owe a copayment or deductible charge for that part of the visit.

In Rogers’ case, a brief chat with her doctor about mental health triggered an additional visit charge — and a bill she was expected to pay.

Rogers said she didn’t broach the subject of depression during her checkup. She was asked when she checked in to fill out the questionnaire, she said — and then the doctor brought it up during her exam.

The Affordable Care Act requires insurers to cover a variety of preventive services without a patient paying out-of-pocket, with the idea that such care might prevent problems or find them early, when they are more treatable and less costly.

The federal government lists dozens of services that are classified as no-cost-sharing preventive care for adults and children, such as cancer screenings, certain vaccinations, and other services recommended by either of two federal agencies or the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, an independent group of experts in disease prevention.

Depression screening is covered as preventive care for adults, including when they’re pregnant or in the postpartum phase.

Rogers requested an itemized bill from her doctor’s practice, which is part of WakeMed Physician Practices. It showed a charge for the wellness visit (free for her), as well as a separate charge for a 20- to 29-minute office visit. Earlier, Rogers said, she had discussed the initial bill with the office manager at her doctor’s office, who told her the separate charge, roughly $67, was for discussing her questionnaire results with her doctor.

For Rogers, it wasn’t so much about the $67 she owed for the visit, as it was a matter of principle. The separate change, she said, was “disingenuous” because she was specifically asked about her mental health.

Also, annual physicals are intended to nip health problems in the bud, which sometimes requires a few more minutes of attention — whether to discuss symptoms of depression or palpate an abdomen for digestive issues.

Sabrina Corlette, a research professor and co-director of the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University, agrees the charge seemed a bit over-the-top: Depression screening “is now a recommended part of the annual physical,” she said. “Implicit in that is someone looks at answers and makes an assessment, and you should not be charged for that.”

Beyond the confusion of being charged for what she thought would be free preventive care, Rogers wondered how the bill was calculated: Her conversation with her doctor about depression did not last that long, she said.

A 20- to 29-minute-visit billing code is commonly used in primary care, reflecting not just the time spent, but also the complexity of the condition or diagnosis, said Yalda Jabbarpour, a family physician in Washington, D.C. She also directs the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies, which researches primary care in the U.S.

Billing codes exist for other, shorter time frames, though those are rarely used except for the most minimal of services, such as a quick question about a test result, she said.

Physicians said Rogers did the right thing, emphasizing that patients should be honest with their doctors during preventive visits — and not keep silent about issues because they are concerned about potential cost sharing.

“If you have a condition like depression, not only does it affect mental health, but it can have significant impact on your medical health overall,” said Stephen Gillaspy, senior director for health and health care financing at the American Psychological Association.

The Resolution: Confused by getting billed for a visit she thought would have no charge, Rogers initially called her doctor’s office and spoke with the office manager, who told her the claim submitted to her insurer was coded correctly for her visit. She then called her insurer to question whether a mistake had been made. She said her insurer said no, agreeing that the physician had billed properly.

Rogers paid the bill.

After being contacted by KFF Health News, and with Rogers’ permission, the WakeMed health system investigated the bill and said it was handled correctly.

“We do split bills when a service is provided that is above and beyond the preventive components of a physical — in this case, beyond a positive screening for depression,” WakeMed spokesperson Kristin Kelly said in an email.

By contrast, Cigna Healthcare, Rogers’ insurer, sent her a new explanation of benefits statement after being contacted by KFF Health News. The EOB showed Cigna had zeroed out any cost to Rogers associated with the visit.

Cigna spokesperson Meaghan MacDonald, in a written statement, said the “wellness visit was initially billed incorrectly with two separate visit codes, and has now been resubmitted correctly so there is no cost-share for Ms. Rogers. We are working with the physician to ensure she is refunded appropriately.”

The insurer’s website says Cigna covers a variety of preventive services without copayment and encourages doctors to counsel patients about depression.

Not long after receiving the new EOB, Rogers said she received a refund of $67.07 from WakeMed.

The Takeaway: While many preventive services are covered under the ACA, the nuances of when a patient pays can be complicated and open to interpretation. So, it is not uncommon for medical practices to narrowly interpret the term “preventive service.”

That creates a billing minefield for patients. If you respond on a questionnaire that you sometimes experience heartburn or headaches, most physicians will inquire about your responses to assess the need for treatment. But should that come with an extra charge? Other patients have written to KFF Health News and NPR expressing frustration over being billed for conversations during a checkup.

Additional time spent during a wellness exam discussing or diagnosing a condition or prescribing medication can be considered beyond preventive care and result in separate charges. But if you receive a bill for a preventive service that you expected would be free, request an itemized bill with billing codes. If something seems off, ask the physician’s office.

If you’re billed for time spent on extra consultation, question it. You know how long the provider spent discussing your health issue better than a billing representative does. Next, reach out to your insurer to protest.

Most important, be honest with your primary care provider during your annual physical.

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism.

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