There has long been an imperative to find ways to reduce health care spending, but the advent of public exchanges pressured the industry to find ways to offer health insurance at a more affordable premium. Health plans hoping to participate in public exchanges responded by creating insurance offerings that gave patient members access to a smaller pool of providers—limited or narrow networks. These smaller networks give payers leverage in negotiations and may eliminate more expensive providers. They have also caught the attention of employers and other health care purchasers and are growing in prevalence in the commercial market.
But what exactly are limited or narrow networks, and are they what we want them to be? We set out to understand how health plans form limited networks, postulating that the criteria to select providers for participation in limited networks across health plans would be fairly consistent. We thought we might be able to conclude, for example, that a limited network is one in which health plans exclude providers whose prices are one standard deviation above the mean or that don’t meet minimum quality thresholds.
In addition, we wanted to learn how health plans determine who among certain provider types is eligible to participate (primary care physicians, specialists, hospitals). Is there a consistent process for selecting providers? Does the health plan, for example, generally start by selecting primary care physicians and then assess the hospitals with which those physicians are affiliated?
An Elusive Concept
Catalyst for Payment Reform (CPR) reached out to a dozen health plans, diverse in size and geography, to learn more about how they form narrow networks. We began by querying them about their use of cost and quality thresholds to select providers for their limited network products.
Across health plans, CPR found no consistent formula for selecting providers by type, below a certain price point, or above a specific level of quality. We learned that health plans primarily consider which hospital or provider group will agree to a certain price (based on a premium analysis), whether excluding others is feasible given each provider’s market power or “must have” status, and whether exclusions create access issues. It is notable that among the health plans we spoke to, none used provider quality as the primary selection criterion. Health plans may consider quality while developing a limited network, but it is secondary to other criteria.
Local market characteristics significantly influence how payers define a network. The design of a limited network depends on the number of providers available as well as the level of competition among them. If a health plan develops a limited network with few providers, consumers may have to travel significant distances to receive care. When there are more provider options, competition helps health plans find a provider group willing to offer a better price. The selected provider group assumes it will make up the potential lost revenue with an increase in patient volume. Therefore, health plans perceive the presence of competition among providers as critical to the development of a limited network product. In circumstances in which health plans have greater market power, they may also consider whether providers are willing to take on some financial risk—now or in the future.
CPR’s search also revealed wide variation in the types of providers health plans focus on when they begin narrowing their networks. While most start with the hospital and then select affiliated primary care physicians and specialists, others start with the primary care physicians and look at affiliated hospitals. Some health plans include all primary care physicians in the limited network and then tier the hospitals and specialists based on cost and sometimes quality criteria. The only consistency we found was that there is no consistency! The only commonality among the narrow networks we examined was that they all contained fewer providers than a given health plan’s broadest network.
A Strategy That Is Here To Stay?
Employer and other health care purchasers’ awareness about the variation in quality and payment amounts has steadily grown, as has their need for savings. Purchasers also recognize that threatening to exclude providers from a pool of patients will strengthen their negotiating position as well as that of other payers. The latest survey data suggest that narrow networks are becoming more prevalent—a trend that is likely to continue.
According to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2017 Employer Health Benefits Survey, 12 percent of benefit-offering firms with 50–999 workers, 23 percent of firms with 1,000–4,999 workers, and 31 percent of firms with 5,000 or more workers offer a high-performance or tiered network. In addition, 6 percent of firms offering benefits said that they or their insurer eliminated a health system from a network to reduce the plan’s cost during the past year.
Furthermore, the 2017 Willis Towers Watson Best Practices in Health Care Employer Survey found that more than half of employers with more than 1,000 employees said that they might add high-performance networks by 2019.
Are Providers Likely To Participate In Them If Selected?
In markets where providers lack competition, they may easily push back on the formation of narrow networks. But in markets where there is competition, providers will likely want to be included instead of risk a loss of patient volume. For providers entering into new delivery models and accepting new forms of payment, they may see narrow networks positively, giving them a greater ability to manage and coordinate patient care as there is less “leakage” of patients to a broad pool of providers. In turn, participating providers may be more willing to take on financial risk for their patients if they know it is easier to control where they seek care, minimizing exposure to particularly high-priced providers.
Are Consumers Likely To Select Them?
The experience with the public exchanges suggest that consumers are willing to make the tradeoff of choice for affordability. By seeking care from a defined group of providers, consumers pay lower out-of-pocket costs and have a straightforward benefit design that clearly distinguishes between in- and out-of-network providers and accompanying cost sharing. Consumers may save further by receiving care from high-value providers who are more likely to provide effective and efficient care the first time.
Some of the employers in CPR’s membership that offer limited or narrow networks, such as an accountable care organization product, find they are meeting or exceeding their enrollment expectations—an indicator that certain consumers will choose price over choice.
Americans are willing to make tradeoffs for now, but they may become skeptical if there isn’t an explicit effort to ensure quality and the perception grows that narrow networks are only about cutting costs. With more experience, Americans may find that physicians with targeted expertise (for example, subspecialists in oncology) or individual members of a care team (for example, anesthesiologists) may not be included in the narrow network, preventing access or resulting in surprise bills for consumers.
Through their use of limited networks, payers may be indicating to health care providers that affordable care will be rewarded with more patients (quality of care could also be a criterion). In markets where providers perceive a higher volume of patients as favorable, the introduction and presence of these networks can send a strong economic signal to providers to improve efficiency and lower prices. It may be too early to identify patterns in how health plans design limited networks; perhaps a standard formula will never materialize. As CPR learned, viable approaches depend on market-specific nuances.