Anthem Blue Cross, the country’s second-biggest health insurance company, is behind on billions of dollars in payments owed to hospitals and doctors because of onerous new reimbursement rules, computer problems and mishandled claims, say hospital officials in multiple states.

Anthem, like other big insurers, is using the COVID-19 crisis as cover to institute “egregious” policies that harm patients and pinch hospital finances, said Molly Smith, group vice president at the American Hospital Association. “There’s this sense of ‘Everyone’s distracted. We can get this through,’” she said.

Hospitals are also dealing with a spike in retroactive claims denials by UnitedHealthcare, the biggest health insurer, for emergency department care, AHA says.

Disputes between insurers and hospitals are nothing new. But this fight sticks more patients in the middle, worried they’ll have to pay unresolved claims. Hospitals say it is hurting their finances as many cope with covid surges — even after the industry has received tens of billions of dollars in emergency assistance from the federal government.

“We recognize there have been some challenges” to prompt payments caused by claims-processing changes and “a new set of dynamics” amid the pandemic, Anthem spokesperson Colin Manning said. “We apologize for any delays or inconvenience this may have caused.”

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Nationwide, the payment delays “are creating an untenable situation,” the American Hospital Association said in a Sept. 9 letter to Anthem CEO Gail Boudreaux. “Patients are facing greater hurdles to accessing care; clinicians are burning out on unnecessary administrative tasks; and the system is straining to finance the personnel and supplies” needed to fight COVID.

Complaints about Anthem extend “from sea to shining sea, from New Hampshire to California,” hospital association CEO Rick Pollack told Kaiser Health News.

Substantial payment delays can be seen on Anthem’s books. On June 30, 2019, before the pandemic, 43% of the insurer’s medical bills for that quarter were unpaid, according to regulatory filings. Two years later that figure had risen to 53% — a difference of $2.5 billion.

Anthem profits were $4.6 billion in 2020 and $3.5 billion in the first half of 2021.

Alexis Thurber, who lives near Seattle, was insured by Anthem when she got an $18,192 hospital bill in May for radiation therapy that doctors said was essential to treat her breast cancer.

The treatments were “experimental” and “not medically necessary,” Anthem said, according to Thurber. She spent much of the summer trying to get the insurer to pay up — placing two dozen phone calls, spending hours on hold, sending multiple emails and enduring unmeasurable stress and worry. It finally covered the claim months later.

“It’s so egregious. It’s a game they’re playing,” said Thurber, 51, whose cancer was diagnosed in November. “Trying to get true help was impossible.”

Privacy rules prevent Anthem from commenting on Thurber’s case, said Anthem spokesperson Colin Manning.

When insurers fail to promptly pay medical bills, patients are left in the lurch. They might first get a notice saying payment is pending or denied. A hospital might bill them for treatment they thought would be covered. Hospitals and doctors often sue patients whose insurance didn’t pay up.

Hospitals point to a variety of Anthem practices contributing to payment delays or denials, including new layers of document requirements, prior-authorization hurdles for routine procedures and requirements that doctors themselves — not support staffers — speak to insurance gatekeepers.

“This requires providers to literally leave the patient's bedside to get on the phone with Anthem,” AHA said in its letter.

Anthem often hinders coverage for outpatient surgery, specialty pharmacy and other services in health systems listed as in-network, amounting to a “bait and switch” on Anthem members, AHA officials said.

“Demanding that patients be treated outside of the hospital setting, against the advice of the patient’s in-network treating physician, appears to be motivated by a desire to drive up Empire’s profits,” the Greater New York Hospital Association wrote in an April letter to Empire Blue Cross, which is owned by Anthem.

Anthem officials pushed back in a recent letter to the AHA, saying the insurer’s changing rules are intended partly to control excessive prices charged by hospitals for specialty drugs and nonemergency surgery, screening and diagnostic procedures.

Alexis Thurber worries she might have to pay her $18,192 radiation bill herself, and she’s not confident her Anthem policy will do a better job next time of covering the cost of her care.

“It makes me not want to go to the doctor anymore,” she said. “I’m scared to get another mammogram because you can’t rely on it.”

©2021 Kaiser Health News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.