Michelle Kuppersmith feels great, works full time and exercises three to four times a week. So she was surprised when a routine blood test found that her body was making too many platelets, which help control bleeding.
Kuppersmith's doctor suspected the 32-year-old Manhattanite had a rare blood disorder called essential thrombocythemia, which can lead to blood clots, strokes and, in rare cases, leukemia.
Her doctor suggested a bone marrow biopsy, in which a large needle is used to suck out a sample of the spongy tissue at the center of the patient's hip bone.
Doctors examine the bone marrow under a microscope and analyze the DNA. The procedure allows doctors to judge a patient's prognosis and select treatment, if needed. Kuppersmith had heard the procedure can be intensely painful, so she put it off for months.
The biopsy — performed by a provider in her insurance network, at a hospital in her network ― lasted only a few minutes, and Kuppersmith received relatively good news.
While a genetic analysis of her bone marrow confirmed her doctor's suspicions, it showed that the only treatment she needs, for now, is a daily, low-dose aspirin. She will check in with her doctor every three to four months to make sure the disease isn't getting worse.
All in all, Kuppersmith felt relieved.
Then she got a notice saying her insurer refused to pay for the genetic analysis, leaving her responsible for a $2,400 payment.
The patient: New York resident Michelle Kuppersmith, 32, who is insured by Maryland-based CareFirst Blue Cross Blue Shield. She works as director of special projects at a Washington-based watchdog group. Because she was treated in New York, Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield — which covers that region ― handled part of her claim.
Total amount owed: $2,400 for out-of-network genetic profiling
The providers: Kuppersmith had her bone marrow removed at the Mount Sinai Ruttenberg Treatment Center in New York City, which sent her biopsy sample to a California lab, Genoptix, for testing.
Medical services: Bone marrow biopsy and molecular profiling, which involves looking for genetic mutations
What gives: The field of molecular diagnostics, which includes a variety of gene-based testing, is undergoing explosive growth, said Gillian Hooker, president of the National Society of Genetic Counselors and vice president of clinical development for Concert Genetics, a health IT company in Nashville, Tennessee.
A report from Concert Genetics, a company that helps clients manage genetic testing, found there are more than 140,000 molecular diagnostic products on the market, with 10 to 15 added each day.
The field is growing so quickly that even doctors are struggling to develop a common vocabulary, Hooker said.
Kuppersmith underwent a type of testing known as molecular profiling, which looks for DNA biomarkers to predict whether patients will benefit from new, targeted therapies. These mutations aren't inherited; they develop over the course of a patient's life, Hooker said.
Medicare spending on molecular diagnostics more than doubled from 2016 to 2018, increasing from $493 million to $1.1 billion, according to Laboratory Economics, a lab industry newsletter.
Charges range from hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on how many genes are involved — and which billing codes insurers use, Hooker said.
Based on Medicare data, at least 1,500 independent labs perform molecular testing, along with more than 500 hospital-based labs, said Jondavid Klipp, the newsletter's publisher.
In a fast-evolving field with lots of money at stake, tests that a doctor or lab may regard as state-of-the-art an insurer might view as experimental.
Worse still, many of the commercial labs that perform the novel tests are out-of-network, as was Genoptix.
Stephanie Bywater, chief compliance officer at NeoGenomics Laboratories, which owns Genoptix, said that insurance policies governing approval have not kept up with the rapid pace of scientific advances. Kuppersmith's doctor ordered a test that has been available since 2014 and was updated in 2017, Bywater said.
Although experts agree that molecular diagnostics is an essential part of care for patients like Kuppersmith, doctors and insurance companies may not agree on which specific test is best, said Dr. Gwen Nichols, chief medical officer of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
Tests "can be performed a number of different ways by a number of different laboratories who charge different amounts," Nichols said.
Insurance plans are much more likely to refuse to pay for molecular diagnostics than other lab tests. Laboratory Economics found Medicare contractors denied almost half of all molecular diagnostics claims over the past five years, compared with 5-10% of routine lab tests.
With so many insurance plans, so many new tests and so many new companies, it is difficult for a doctor to know which labs are in a patient's network and which specific tests are covered, Nichols said.
"Different providers have contracts with different diagnostic companies," which can affect a patient's out-of-pocket costs, Nichols said. "It is incredibly complex and really difficult to determine the best, least expensive path."
Kuppersmith said she has always been careful to check that her doctors accept her insurance. She made sure Mount Sinai was in her insurance network, too. But it never occurred to her that the biopsy would be sent to an outside lab ― or that it would undergo genetic analysis.
She added: "The looming threat of a $2,400 bill has caused me, in many ways, more anxiety than the illness ever has."
The resolution: Despite making dozens of phone calls, Kuppersmith got nothing but confusing and contradictory answers when she tried to sort out the unexpected charge.
An agent for her insurer told her that her doctor hadn't gotten preauthorization for the testing. But in an email to Kuppersmith, a Genoptix employee told her the insurance company had denied the claim because molecular profiling was viewed as experimental.
A spokesperson for New York-based Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, which handled part of Kuppersmith's claim, said her health plan "covers medically necessary genetic testing."
New York, one of 28 states with laws against surprise billing, requires hospitals to inform patients in writing if their care may include out-of-network providers, said attorney Elisabeth Benjamin, vice president of health initiatives at the Community Service Society, which provides free help with insurance problems.
A spokesperson for Mount Sinai said the hospital complies with that law, noting that Kuppersmith was given such a document in 2018 — nearly one year before her bone marrow biopsy ― and signed it.
Benjamin said that's not OK, explaining: "I think a one-year-old, vague form like the one she signed would not comply with the state law — and certainly not the spirit of it."
Instead of sending Kuppersmith a bill, Genoptix offered to help her appeal the denied coverage to CareFirst. At first, Genoptix asked Kuppersmith to designate the company as her personal health care representative. She was uncomfortable signing over what sounded like sweeping legal rights to strangers. Instead, she wrote an email granting the company permission to negotiate on her behalf. It was sufficient.
A few days after being contacted by KHN, Kuppersmith's insurer said it would pay Genoptix at the in-network rate, covering $1,200 of the $2,400 charge. Genoptix said it has no plans to bill Kuppersmith for the other half of the charge.
The takeaway: Kuppersmith is relieved her insurer changed its mind about her bill. But, she said: "I'm a relatively young, savvy person with a college degree. There are a lot of people who don't have the time or wherewithal to do this kind of fighting."
Patients should ask their health care providers if any outside contractors will be involved in their care, including pathologists, anesthesiologists, clinical labs or radiologists, experts said. And check if those involved are in-network.
"Try your best to ask in advance," said Jack Hoadley, a research professor emeritus at Georgetown University. "Ask, 'Do I have a choice about where [a blood or tissue sample] is sent?'"
Ask, too, if the sample will undergo molecular diagnostics. Since the testing is still relatively new — and expensive ― most insurers require patients to obtain "prior authorization," or special permission, said Dr. Debra Regier, a medical geneticist at Children's National Hospital in Washington and an associate with NORD, the National Organization of Rare Diseases. Getting this permission in advance can prevent many headaches.
Finally, be wary of signing blanket consent forms telling you that some components of your care may be out-of-network. Tell your provider that you want to be informed on a case-by-case basis when an out-of-network provider is involved and to consent to their participation.
Bill of the Month is a crowdsourced investigation by Kaiser Health News and NPR that dissects and explains medical bills. Do you have a perplexing medical bill you want to share with us? Tell us about it here.