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Your Health
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David Sayen: Inpatient or Outpatient? It Makes a Difference with Medicare

When you go to a hospital, does it make any difference if you’re considered an “inpatient” or an “outpatient”?

David Sayen
David Sayen

Yes, it does.

Your hospital status (whether the hospital classifies you as an inpatient or outpatient) affects how much you pay for hospital services such as X-rays, drugs and lab tests. It also may affect whether Medicare will cover care you get in a skilled nursing facility.

You’re an inpatient starting the day you’re formally admitted to the hospital with a doctor’s order. The day before you’re discharged is your last inpatient day.

You’re an outpatient if you’re getting emergency department services, observation services, outpatient surgery, lab tests or X-rays, and the doctor hasn’t written an order to admit you to the hospital as an inpatient.

In these cases, you’re an outpatient even if you spend the night at the hospital.

Observation services are tests and other outpatient services that help the doctor decide if you need to be admitted as an inpatient or can be discharged. Observation services may be given in the emergency department or another area of the hospital.

If you’re in the hospital more than a few hours, always ask your doctor or the hospital staff if you’re an inpatient or an outpatient.

What do you pay as an inpatient?

Medicare Part A (hospital insurance) covers inpatient services, including a semi-private room, nursing care, drugs and meals. Generally, you pay a one-time deductible for all hospital services for the first 60 days you’re in the hospital. The Part A deductible this year is $1,184.

Medicare Part B (medical insurance) covers most doctor services when you’re an inpatient. You pay 20% of the Medicare-approved amount for doctor services after paying the Part B deductible ($147 in 2013).

What do you pay as an outpatient?

Part B also covers outpatient hospital services. Generally, this means you pay a co-payment for each individual outpatient service. The amount may vary by service.

The co-payment for a single outpatient hospital service can’t be more than the inpatient hospital deductible. However, your total co-payment for all outpatient services may be more than the inpatient hospital deductible.

Part B covers most of your doctor services when you’re a hospital outpatient. You pay 20 percent of the Medicare-approved amount after you pay the Part B deductible.

Generally, the prescription and over-the-counter drugs you get in an outpatient setting (like an emergency department), sometimes called “self-administered drugs,” aren’t covered by Part B.

For safety reasons, many hospitals don’t allow patients to bring drugs from home. If you have Medicare prescription drug coverage (Part D), these drugs may be covered under certain circumstances. You’re likely to need to pay out-of-pocket for these drugs and submit a claim to your drug plan for a refund. Call your plan for more information.

Also, keep in mind that Medicare will only cover care you get in a skilled nursing facility if you’ve been a hospital inpatient for at least three days in a row (counting the day you were admitted as an inpatient but not counting the day you were discharged).

If you weren’t an inpatient for three days but you still need care after your discharge, ask if you can get home health care or if other programs such as Medicaid or veterans benefits will cover skilled nursing for you.

If you have a Medicare Advantage Plan (such as an HMO or PPO), costs and coverage may be different. Check with your plan.

For more detailed information on how Medicare covers inpatient and outpatient hospital services, read Medicare’s brochure, “Are You a Hospital Inpatient or Outpatient?” It can be found online by clicking here.

— David Sayen is Medicare’s regional administrator for California, Arizona, Hawaii, Nevada and the Pacific Trust Territories. You can always get answers to your Medicare questions by calling 800.MEDICARE (633.4227).

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