Meg Bakewell, who has cancer and cancer-related heart disease, sometimes emails her primary care physician, oncologist, and cardiologist asking them for medical advice when she experiences urgent symptoms such as pain or shortness of breath.
But she was a little surprised when, for the first time, she got a bill — a $13 copay — for an emailed consultation she had with her primary care doctor at University of Michigan Health. The health system had begun charging in 2020 for “e-visits” through its MyChart portal. Even though her out-of-pocket cost on the $37 charge was small, now she’s worried about how much she’ll have to pay for future e-visits, which help her decide whether she needs to see one of her doctors in person. Her standard copay for an office visit is $25.
“If I send a message to all three doctors, that could be three copays, or $75,” said Bakewell, a University of Michigan teaching consultant who lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and is on long-term disability leave. “It’s the vagueness of the whole thing. You don’t know if you’ll get into a copay or not. It just makes me hesitate.”
Spurred by the sharp rise in email messaging during the covid pandemic, a growing number of health systems around the country have started charging patients when physicians and other clinicians send replies to their messages. Health systems that have adopted billing for some e-visits include a number of the nation’s premier medical institutions: Cleveland Clinic, Mayo Clinic, San Francisco-based UCSF Health, Vanderbilt Health, St. Louis-based BJC HealthCare, Chicago-based Northwestern Medicine, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Billing for e-visits, however, raises knotty questions about the balance between fairly compensating providers for their time and enhancing patients’ access to care. Physicians and patient advocates fret particularly about the potential financial impact on lower-income people and those whose health conditions make it hard for them to see providers in person or talk to them on the phone or through video.
A large part of the motivation for the billing is to reduce the messaging. Soon after the pandemic hit, health systems saw a 50% increase in emails from patients, with primary care physicians facing the biggest burden, said A Jay Holmgren, an assistant professor of health informatics at UCSF, the University of California-San Francisco. System executives sought to compensate doctors and other providers for the extensive time they were spending answering emails, while prodding patients to think more carefully about whether an in-person visit might be more appropriate than a lengthy message.
After UCSF started charging in November 2021, the rate of patient messaging dipped slightly, by about 2%, Holmgren and his colleagues found.
Like UCSF, many other health systems now charge fees when doctors or other clinicians respond to patient messages that take five minutes or more of the provider’s time over a seven-day period and require medical expertise. They use three billing codes for e-visits, implemented in 2020 by the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
E-visits that are eligible for billing include those relating to changes in medication, new symptoms, changes or checkups related to a long-term condition, and requests to complete medical forms. There’s no charge for messages about appointment scheduling, prescription refills, or other routine matters that don’t require medical expertise.
So far, UCSF patients are being billed for only 2% to 3% of eligible e-visits, at least partly because it takes clinicians extra time and effort to figure out whether an email encounter qualifies for billing, Holmgren said.
At Cleveland Clinic, only 1.8% of eligible email visits are being billed to patients, said Eric Boose, the system’s associate chief medical information officer. There are three billing rates based on the time the clinician takes to prepare the message — five to 10 minutes, 11 to 20 minutes, and 21 minutes or more. He said patients haven’t complained about the new billing policy, which started last November, and that they’ve become “a little smarter and more succinct” in their messages, rather than sending multiple messages a week.
The doctors at Cleveland Clinic, like those at most health systems that bill for e-visits, don’t personally pocket the payments. Instead, they get productivity credits, which theoretically enables them to reduce their hours seeing patients in the office.
“Most of our physicians said it’s about time we’re getting compensated for our time in messaging,” Boose said. “We’re hoping this helps them feel less stressed and burned out, and that they can get home to their families earlier.”
“It’s been a frustration for many physicians for many years that we weren’t reimbursed for our ‘pajama-time’ work,” said Sterling Ransone, the chair of the American Academy of Family Physicians’ Board of Directors. Ransone’s employer, Riverside Health System in Virginia, started billing for e-visits in 2020. “We do it because it’s the right thing for patients. But rarely do you see other professions do all this online work for free,” he said.
“We see physicians working two to four hours every evening on their patient emails after their shift is over, and that’s not sustainable,” said CT Lin, the chief medical information officer at University of Colorado Health, which has not yet adopted billing for email visits. “But we worry that patients with complex disease will stop messaging us entirely because of this copay risk.”
Many health care professionals share the fear that billing for messages will adversely affect medically and socially vulnerable patients. Even a relatively small copay could discourage patients from emailing their clinicians for medical advice in appropriate situations, said Caitlin Donovan, a senior director at the National Patient Advocate Foundation, citing studies showing the dramatic negative impact of copays on medication adherence.
Holmgren said that while patients with minor acute conditions may not mind paying for an email visit rather than coming into the office, the new billing policies could dissuade patients with serious chronic conditions from messaging their doctors. “We don’t know who is negatively affected,” he said. “Are we discouraging high-value messages that produce a lot of health gains? That is a serious concern.”
Due to this worry, Lin said, University of Colorado Health is experimenting with an alternative way of easing the time burden of e-visits on physicians. Working with Epic, the dominant electronic health record vendor, it will have an artificial intelligence chatbot draft email replies to patient messages. The chatbot’s draft message will then be edited by the provider. Several other health systems are already using the tool.
There also are questions about price transparency — whether patients can know when and how much they’ll have to pay for an email visit, especially since much depends on their health plan’s deductibles and copays.
While Medicare, Medicaid, and most private health plans cover email visits, not all do, experts say. Coverage may depend on the contract between a health system and an insurer. Ransone said Elevance Health, a Blue Cross Blue Shield carrier, recently told his health system it would no longer pay for email or telephonic visits in its commercial or Medicaid plans in Virginia. An Elevance spokesperson declined to comment.
Another price concern is that patients who are uninsured or have high-deductible plans may face the full cost of an email visit, which could run as high as $160.
At University of Michigan Health, where Bakewell receives her care, patients receive a portal alert prior to sending a message that there may be a charge; they must click a box indicating they understand, said spokesperson Mary Masson.
But Donovan said that leaves a lot of room for uncertainty. “How is the patient supposed to know whether something will take five minutes?” Donovan said. “And knowing what you’ll be charged is impossible because of health plan design. Just saying patients could be charged is not providing transparency.”
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