Physicians are unsuited as bill collectors

The Increasing Role of Physician Practices as Bill Collectors Destined for Failure
July 30, 2021
By A. Jay Holmgren et al

Through increasing deductibles, coinsurance, and co-payments, the privately insured population in the US is responsible for a larger share of health care out-of-pocket costs. Although many studies have examined the effects on patients, the implications for physicians have received less attention. The increase in cost sharing is forcing many physicians and health systems to take on the role of bill collectors. It is a task for which physician practices are unsuited. The result is a system with substantial administrative burden, frustrated patients struggling with confusing bills, and physicians receiving less compensation.

Moving away from deductibles and toward fixed-dollar co-payments as a cost-sharing mechanism could simplify the billing experience for patients and the collection process for physicians while retaining the ability of payers to steer patients to lower-cost care with financial incentives.


The growth of cost sharing and HDHPs has resulted in patients’ taking on more of the cost of their own care and in physicians’ holding the risk and responsibility of collecting large dollar amounts. Physician offices are poorly suited to the task, exacerbating a complex and confusing system for patients and clinicians alike. New private firms have developed products to simplify, consolidate, and improve billing. However, these private-sector solutions may help ameliorate the problem but will not solve it. Only larger shifts in how out-of-pocket costs are envisioned will meaningfully address the burden of high out-of-pocket spending on both patients and physicians.

Comment by Don McCanne

This JAMA Viewpoint article explains the burden of out-of-pocket cost sharing on both the patient and the physician – financial barriers for the patient, and a costly administrative burden for the physician.

Cost sharing can interfere with the delivery of care. High cost sharing may cause individuals to forgo beneficial health care. Even modest cost sharing can cause individuals with limited resources to forgo essential care. Also cost sharing has been a significant contributor to the expansion of medical debt with its associated bankruptcies. Cost sharing is detrimental to the goal of health care justice for all.

The purported reason is that the financial disincentives of cost sharing steer patients to lower-cost care. But do patients really shop cost-sharing prices? And would any modest differences have a significant impact on the total cost of care?

If we are trying to control health care spending, wouldn’t it be much more effective and efficient to institute administered pricing with a public plan? We should be able to get pricing right when the public administrators take into consideration both the legitimate costs and fair compensation for physicians, and the interests of the potential patients subjected to progressive taxes.

The authors acknowledge that physician offices are “poorly suited” to the task of collecting cost sharing payments, but the solution is not more of the same by moving from deductibles to co-payments. The solution is to dispense with patient cost sharing and move to universal, first dollar coverage, which would also eliminate the scourge of medical debt and save lives.