Amid new price transparency laws and growing consumer demand, more hospitals are adding cash pay options for certain health care services instead of just accepting insurance, Nora Tepper writes for Modern Healthcare—and some hospital officials say these offerings are “only going to go up” in the future.
How an ‘anomaly’ is becoming more common
Providers advertising cash pay rates for their services used to be considered an “anomaly,” Tepper writes. Now, the No Surprises Act, the federal price transparency law, and changing consumer expectations may make cash-only payments for health care services more common.
“The market is going there,” said Larry Van Horn, associate professor of management, law, and health policy and executive director of health affairs at Vanderbilt University. “You’ve got direct primary care, you’ve got physicians going and moving into cash pay. You’re gonna have to sit there at some point and say, ‘Wait a minute, they’re taking my business.'”
Although some hospitals and health systems that serve certain populations—such as Pomerene Hospital in Ohio with Amish and Anabaptist patients and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center with medical tourists—have long had cash-pay systems, it is still a relatively new concept for most providers in the United States.
According to data from Medscape, which surveyed more than 17,000 clinicians, just 17% of clinicians used cash-only, concierge, or direct-pay primary care models in 2020. Primary care providers (PCPs) made up the largest proportion of providers accepting cash pay, with 10% of practices charging patients a flat monthly fee for unlimited services.
“[S]ome providers embracing the cash pay revolution say their bottom line benefits from faster reimbursement, lower administration costs and higher patient retention,” Tepper writes.
In a 2020 report from the Society of Actuaries, almost all PCPs who operated under self-pay models reported “better or much better” personal and professional satisfaction compared to those under a traditional fee-for-service system. In addition, 34% of respondents reported “better or much better” earnings under a direct payment model.
How patients could benefit from cash-pay systems
According to Tepper, hospitals generally offer self-paying patients, who have typically been uninsured individuals or those with high-deductible health plans, lower rates for services compared to commercial insurers since they don’t have to handle administrative work or collections.
In a 2021 study published in JAMA Network Open, researchers analyzed rates for “shoppable” services at 922 hospitals and found that the proportion of hospitals that had lower cash prices than their median commercial negotiated rate ranged from 38.4% for liver tests to 68.5% for C-sections.
During the pandemic, more insured patients began to inquire about what services they could pay cash for, leading some health systems to create new payment models for certain procedures.
For example, Deaconess Health System launched an in-house bundled payment program, which includes cardiology, radiology, and urgent care services, in July 2020. The first year, the health system sold 130 bundled services, which increased to 351 in 2021, and 489 as of August 2022.
For any services not covered by the program, Deaconess offers a 50% discount on cash payments compared to its insurer rate. However, self-paying patients are required to pay the full cost of a procedure upfront.
“The patient has decided to take a bet on themselves,” said Steve Russell, VP and chief revenue cycle officer at Deaconess. “They have a high deductible, they don’t think they’re going to reach that threshold and their thought is, ‘If I don’t use my insurance, what kind of discount can you give me?'”
Separately, CommonSpirit Health‘s Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI) launched its own bundled cash price program in 2018 after noticing that many patients with high-deductible plans would defer care due to affordability concerns. The health system also advertises and sells its services on MDsave, an online marketplace that allows consumers to shop for health care procedures.
“With the No Surprises Act and the price transparency regulations, this has to be something that we offer,” said Jeanette Wojtalewicz, SVP and CFO at CHI Health’s Midwest division. “You’ll see more of this coming.”
The future of cash-pay systems in hospitals
According to Aaron Miri, SVP and chief digital and information officer at Baptist Health South Florida, although few patients are currently paying directly for health care services, the industry is heading towards that direction, which means health systems need to be prepared to meet the demand.
“When you look at the directionality of demand, this is only going to go up,” Miri said. “Patients are going to start seeing their total estimated bill and say, ‘I want to spend my $500 at a health system that was really transparent with me, and made me feel comfortable, versus the health system down the road that I’ve always gone to, but that simply can’t tell me what my actual amount due is.”
To make it easier for patients to directly pay for procedures, some health systems, including Baptist Health, have updated their payment options by adding Apple Pay, Google Pay, or other online payment systems instead of just accepting payment in-person or by phone.
However, even as direct payment models become more common, some insurers are “using their leverage to slow adoption of cash pay,” Tepper writes.
Kimberly Scaccia, VP of revenue management at MercyHealth, said some of the health system’s contracts with insurers prohibit it from offering cash discounts to insured patients.
“Some of the smaller payers, they’re fine with removing [cash pay restrictions],” Scaccia said. “Some of the very, very large payers, they simply will not allow it.”
In addition, Matthew Fiedler, a senior fellow of economic studies at the USC-Brookings Schaeffer Initiative for Health Policy, said clinicians may also be concerned about insurers asking to pay the lower cash rate during contract renewals or jeopardizing a provider’s network position.
“An insurer could say, ‘We’re gonna put this provider out-of-network, but we’re gonna put them in a preferred out-of-network position in our benefit design, where the cost-sharing is not that onerous, because we know they have this really good cash price,'” Fiedler said.