The Washington Times-Herald

Features

December 28, 2011

Preventive care: It's free, except when it's not

CHICAGO — Bill Dunphy thought his colonoscopy would be free.

His insurance company told him it would be covered 100 percent, with no copayment from him and no charge against his deductible. The nation's 1-year-old health law requires most insurance plans to cover all costs for preventive care including colon cancer screening. So Dunphy had the procedure in April.

Then the bill arrived: $1,100.

Dunphy, a 61-year-old Phoenix small business owner, angrily paid it out of his own pocket because of what some prevention advocates call a loophole. His doctor removed two noncancerous polyps during the colonoscopy. So while Dunphy was sedated, his preventive screening turned into a diagnostic procedure. That allowed his insurance company to bill him.

Like many Americans, Dunphy has a high-deductible insurance plan. He hadn't spent his deductible yet. So, on top of his $400 monthly premium, he had to pay the bill.

"That's bait and switch," Dunphy said. "If it isn't fraud, it's immoral."

President Barack Obama's health overhaul encourages prevention by requiring most insurance plans to pay for preventive care. On the plus side, more than 22 million Medicare patients and many more Americans with private insurance have received one or more free covered preventive services this year. From cancer screenings to flu shots, many services no longer cost patients money.

But there are confusing exceptions. As Dunphy found out, colonoscopies can go from free to pricey while the patient is under anesthesia.

Breast cancer screenings can cause confusion too. In Florida, Tampa Bay-area small business owner Dawn Thomas, 50, went for a screening mammogram. But she was told by hospital staff that her mammogram would be a diagnostic test — not preventive screening — because a previous mammogram had found something suspicious. (It turned out to be nothing.)

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