For years, Ely Bair dealt with migraine headaches, jaw pain and high blood pressure, until a dentist recommended surgery to realign his jaw to get to the root of his health problems.
The fix would involve two surgeries over a couple of years and wearing braces on his teeth before and in between the procedures.
Bair had the first surgery, on his upper jaw, in 2018 at Swedish Medical Center, First Hill Campus in Seattle. The surgery was covered by his Premera Blue Cross plan, and Bair's out-of-pocket hospital expense was $3,000.
He changed jobs in 2019 but still had Premera health insurance. In 2020, he had the planned surgery on his lower jaw at the same hospital where he had been treated the first time. The surgery went well, and he spent one night in the hospital before being discharged. He was healing well and beginning to see the benefits of the surgeries.
Then the bill arrived.
The Patient: Ely Bair, 35, a quality assurance analyst. He has a Premera Blue Cross health plan through his job at a biotech firm in Seattle.
Total Bill: Swedish Medical Center billed Bair about $27,119 for the second surgery in July 2020. This was Bair's share of the negotiated rate, after the hospital took about $14,311 off the charge. His insurer paid $5,000. Bair owed additional bills to the surgeon and the anesthesiologist.
What Gives: Bair hit two maddening pitfalls of the U.S. health system: He expected his new health plan to behave like his previous one from the same insurer — and he expected his mouth to be treated like the rest of his body. Neither common-sense notion appears true in America's health insurance system.
Typically, large companies, such as Bair's employers, "self insure," meaning they pay their workers' health costs but use insurance companies to maintain provider networks and handle claims. When Bair changed jobs, his insurance coverage changed, even though both employers used Premera. Bair paid $3,000 for his first surgery because that was the out-of-pocket maximum under the health plan from his previous employer, which covered oral and maxillofacial surgery.
Bair expected that using the same hospital and the same insurance carrier would mean his costs would be similar for part two of his treatment. Bair's oral and maxillofacial surgeon — the same doctor who performed the first procedure — checked Bair's benefits through his insurer's online portal and thought it would be covered. Premera also sent his doctor confirmation agreeing that the second procedure was medically necessary.
About three months after the surgery, Bair was shocked to get the large hospital bill — roughly $24,000 higher than he expected.
When he called Premera, he learned his new plan had a $5,000 lifetime limit on coverage for the reconstructive jaw procedure known as orthognathic surgery, which is sometimes regarded as a dental rather than a medical intervention. His doctor said that information was not noted in Bair's benefits when the practice reviewed them through an online portal. Premera told Bair that he should have known about the limit because it was listed in his detailed, hard-copy, 86-page member-benefit booklet.
The Affordable Care Act in 2014 eliminated lifetime and annual caps on insurance coverage for categories of treatment such as prescription drugs, laboratory services and mental health care.
While the ACA lists broad categories about what is considered an "essential health benefit," each state decides which services are included in each category and the scope or duration that must be offered. Bariatric surgery, physical therapy and abortion are examples of care for which insurance coverage can vary a lot by state under this ACA provision.
Orthognathic surgery is not considered an essential health benefit in Washington, where Bair lives. It is sometimes performed for cosmetic purposes only. Also, health plans sometimes regard the surgery as part of orthodontia — which frequently involves limits on coverage. But for Bair, it was a clear medical necessity.
Without an ACA requirement for orthognathic surgery, Premera and self-insured plans are allowed to provide various levels of benefits and can impose annual and lifetime caps that limit their coverage for the treatment.
Premera spokesperson Courtney Wallace said Bair transferred from a plan with his former company that did not have a lifetime maximum to a plan with a $5,000 lifetime maximum benefit.
Martine Brousse, a patient advocate and owner of AdvimedPro, which helps patients with health care billing disputes, said Bair acted appropriately by using a doctor and hospital in his health plan's network and checking with his doctor about his insurance coverage.
She said the hospital should have told him before the surgery — which was planned weeks ahead of time — how much he would have to pay. "That is a failure on part of the hospital," she said.
Sabrina Corlette, co-director of the Georgetown University Center on Health Insurance Reforms, said it doesn't seem fair that Bair's first employer covered the cost of his surgery but the second employer did not. She said the roughly $27,000 bill seemed excessive and the $5,000 lifetime limit very low. "Essential health benefits serve a really important function, and when there are gaps or holes, people can really get hurt," she said.
Resolution: Bair's doctor told him the hospital charge from Swedish Medical Center was at least three times the amount Swedish charges uninsured patients for the same surgery. Bair said the hospital offered to let him pay the bill over two years but did not make any other concessions.
Swedish would not say, when we asked, why it did not verify Bair's insurance benefits before the surgery or let him know he would face an enormous bill even though he was insured.
"Hospital pricing is complex and nuanced," the hospital officials said in an emailed statement. Bair's bill "was inclusive of all the care he received, which included specialized services and expertise, equipment and the operating room time. He had a jaw procedure that had a maximum benefit from his insurer of $5,000. He was billed the balance not covered by his insurer."
The hospital system said it also has an online tool that generates estimates tailored to patients' coverage and choice of hospital.
However, the online tool did not come up with anything on the term "orthognathic surgery" when we checked this week.
Bair appealed three times to Premera to reconsider its decision to cover only $5,000 of the cost of his procedure. But the insurer rejected each request, saying that he had exhausted his lifetime orthognathic surgery benefit and that he was responsible for any additional care. When Swedish wouldn't lower his cost, he filed a complaint in December 2020 with the state attorney general's office.
A few months later, Swedish reduced Bair's bill from over $27,000 to $7,164.
"Because neither the patient nor his provider was aware of this limitation in coverage prior to the procedure, the surgeon advocated on the patient's behalf to get the bill lowered," the hospital told KHN in an emailed statement.
Bair agreed to pay the lower amount. "The bill is at least a much more manageable number than the financial ruin $27,000 would have been," he said. "I am just looking forward to closing this chapter and moving on."
The surgeon who helped Blair fight the hospital bill and the limited insurance coverage reduced his own bill to $5,000 from $10,000, Bair noted.
Bair said his employer, Adaptive Biotechnologies, is looking into eliminating its $5,000 lifetime limit for the procedure when it is medically necessary.
Since the surgery, Bair said he gets far fewer migraine headaches and his high blood pressure has been reduced. "I feel way more energized," he said.
The Takeaway: When facing a planned surgery, talk to your hospital, doctor and insurer about how much of the bill you will be responsible for — and get it in writing before any procedure.
"In theory, you should be able to rely on your provider to confirm your coverage but, in practice, it is in your best interest to call your insurer yourself," Corlette said.
Even though the ACA eliminated lifetime and annual caps on coverage, that applies only to services deemed essential in a patient's particular state. Be aware that certain surgeries — like jaw surgery — lie within a gray area; insurers might not consider them a necessary medical intervention or even a medical procedure at all. Corlette feels health plans should notify patients when they are closing in on lifetime or annual limits, but that doesn't always happen.
Also, be aware that even though your insurance carrier may stay the same after you switch jobs, your benefits could be quite different.
Kudos to Bair for being a proactive patient and appealing to the state attorney general — which got him a positive result.
KHN reporter Stephanie O'Neill contributed the audio profile to this report.