An Unpleasant Surprise

An Unpleasant Surprise

An Unpleasant Surprise - Tradeoffs

Surprise medical bills have become a major issue for Americans, but federal legislation to protect consumers continues to stall. ICongress getting closer to halting this practice?

Listen to the full episode below, read the transcript or scroll down for more information.

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The Basics: The Scope of the Problem

Surprise bills can occur when patients with insurance unknowingly receive care from an out-of-network provider while at an in-network facility (such as a bill from an anesthesiologist for a scheduled surgery).

That provider is not bound by a set rate negotiated with an insurer and may charge more for a service than the insurer is willing to pay, and patients can end up on the hook for the difference.

It is difficult to capture the full extent of the problem, but research shows that surprise bills, also called balance bills, occur often, and have only been increasing in frequency and size over the past few years. 

42% of hospital and ER visits may come with an unexpected charge
$2,000 average size of a surprise bill for a hospital visit
66% of Americans fear surprise bills
80% of Americans support surprise bill protections

The Source: Who’s To Blame?

Physicians

Hospitals employ some physicians directly, but many also contract with speciality physician groups of surgical assistants, anesthesiologists, radiologists, emergency medicine doctors and pathologists who may not be in the same insurance networks as the hospital. This is why most surprise bills occur. Research shows that private equity firms also play an important role, buying up speciality physician groups and using surprise billing as a core part of their business model.

Insurers

Insurers often take a lot of heat for the price of health care, but they play a more limited role in surprise billing. They can create narrow networks that leave hospitals or doctors out and open the door to balance billing. Insurers also do a poor job of maintaining accurate in-network provider directories, which means patients may think they’re choosing an in-network doctor when they are not.

Hospitals

While surprise bills from hospitals are less common than from physicians, they do occur when, for instance, a hospital is not in a patient’s network, but the patient is rushed there because of an emergency.

Ambulances

Air and ground ambulances rides are another source of surprise bills. One analysis showed that air ambulances resulted in median potential surprise bills of almost $21,700.

The Fixes: The Legislation Landscape

Federal Proposals

Over the past two years, Congress has considered at least four bipartisan bills to protect patients from surprise charges, but all four have stalled. The proposals offer different approaches to determine how much insurers will pay out-of-network providers. These bills typically address the problem by adopting a payment standard, arbitration process or a hybrid of the two.

Payment Standard

Insurers reimburse providers for out-of-network bills based on a set amount. Most bills propose using established in-network rates.

Arbitration

This process requires an insurer and provider to submit payment offers to a neutral party who makes the final call.

Hybrid

This approach combines the payment standard with arbitration to resolve disputes. An insurer pays a set amount, and if the provider disagrees, it can initiate arbitration.

State Laws

With federal solutions at a standstill, 30 states have passed varying levels of protections from surprise billing. As of July, 2020, 16 states have more comprehensive protections, which ensure that insured patients are only responsible for paying in-network costs, even when receiving care from out-of-network providers or emergency services at an out-of-network facility. Georgia was the latest state to pass such a law in July 2020. The other 14 states offer far more limited protections.

But even states with comprehensive protections cannot protect all patients from surprise medical bills. States are not able to regulate job-based coverage that falls under a federal law known as the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, which applies to most employer sponsored insurance. These patients remain vulnerable to surprise medical bills until Congress takes action to ban the practice.

Click on the map below for an interactive map from the Commonwealth Fund that details each state’s protections.

State Balance-Billing Protections | Commonwealth Fund

The Sticking Point: Will Congress Pass Protections?

Despite strong bipartisan support for protecting patients from surprise bills, disagreement comes over how much physician groups should charge and how much insurers should pay. Essentially, resolving this issue may mean Congress has to pick sides.

As a result, stakeholders such as hospitals and private equity-backed physician groups, in particular, have pushed back on federal legislation, arguing that banning surprise billing will cripple their bottom line. These equity-backed physician groups have powerful lobbying groups, and in 2019, spent at least $5 million to persuade lawmakers to halt the legislation.

The pandemic has increased the risk that patients will unknowingly receive care from an out-of-network provider or at an out-of-network facility. The Trump administration tried to limit surprise bills for those in need of COVID-19 treatment by banning hospitals and providers that receive money from its Provider Relief Fund from sending balance bills to patients. But this approach leaves significant gaps and has had mixed success.

 

 

Surprise medical bills in the coronavirus era

https://www.axios.com/surprise-medical-bills-coronavirus-c61a5529-3272-4edd-b660-35dc61f751b4.html

Surprise medical bills in the coronavirus era - Axios

Rep. Katie Porter recently received an explanation of benefits from her insurer saying that, in addition to the $20 co-pay she paid when she got her coronavirus test, she may be on the hook for an additional $56.60.

The catch: The law requires insurers to cover coronavirus testing without cost-sharing. Porter knows that because she voted for it.

Why it matters: Containing the coronavirus depends on knowing who has it, and it’s going to be much harder to get people to get tested if they think they’ll have to pay for it. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that patients may be vulnerable to surprise coronavirus bills.

Between the lines: Porter, who received a coronavirus test on March 23, has insurance through UnitedHealthcare and shared her explanation of benefits with Axios. Congress has required both the test itself and the associated care to be covered without cost-sharing.

  • In a statement, UnitedHealth Group said it has waived member cost-sharing for coronavirus testing and treatment.
  • “Some members received bills early on when there were not yet specific COVID-19 billing codes and during a period in which code adoption was first taking place,” the company said, adding that it’s waiving those charges and evaluating claims from earlier this year to make sure they were handled correctly.
  • “We are not authorized to talk about [Porter’s] specific situation without permission, however, what likely occurred is that her provider used the wrong billing code for the visit. To confirm if that’s the case and have it corrected, we encourage Rep. Porter to contact us so we can clarify with her directly.”

Yes, but: There’s a huge question of who should have to pay for coronavirus testing as it becomes more prolific, and many insurers — United included — have said that they’ll only cover tests that are “medically necessary,” at least without cost-sharing. It’s unclear who will pay for tests that aren’t deemed medically necessary.

  • The federal government hasn’t said who should pay for testing when, whether it be insurers, employers or the government itself. Insurers are questioning whether they should be on the hook for the hundreds of thousands of tests of asymptomatic people that public health experts say will need to be conducted every day.
  • Even though Congress has tried to resolve payment disputes between insurers and out-of-network labs, there’s a loophole that would allow patients to receive balance bills from out-of-network labs in some circumstances.
  • If a patient sees an out-of-network doctor for a coronavirus test, they’re vulnerable to receiving a surprise medical bill from this provider — just as they are under normal, non-coronavirus conditions, said Loren Adler, associate director of the USC-Brookings Schaeffer Initiative for Health Policy.

What they’re saying: “We will not be able to truly reopen and rebuild if Americans rightly fear costly medical bills for visiting their health care providers for coronavirus tests,” Porter writes in a letter to top Health and Human Services officials being sent today, asking the administration to implement the law more forcefully.

  • She also asked for “formal, explicit guidance for insurers, providers, employers like nursing homes and assisted living facilities, and testing companies, as well as all 50 states…to ensure patients and workers are not asked to pay any costs.”

 

 

 

 

UnitedHealth likely to keep squeezing physician staffing firms

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/unitedhealth-likely-to-keep-squeezing-physician-staffing-firms/573679/

Image result for UnitedHealth likely to keep squeezing physician staffing firms

The nation’s largest private insurer has been terminating its contracts with physician staffing firms in a bid to extract lower prices, part of a years-long pattern analysts say could spur other payers to follow.

UnitedHealthcare contends it is simply trying to curb the rising cost of healthcare by driving out high-cost providers that charge far more than the median rate in its network. The payer said it had hoped to keep these firms in network “at rates that reflect fair market prices,” a UnitedHealthcare spokesperson told Healthcare Dive.

The most recent action targeted Mednax, a firm that provides specialty services including anesthesia, neonatology and high-risk obstetrics in both urban and rural areas. United cut Mednax contracts in four states, pushing those providers out of network, potentially putting patients at risk of balance bills.

United also recently canceled its in-network contracts with U.S. Anesthesia Partners in Texas, starting in April, which caused Moody’s to change its outlook to negative for the provider group because the contracts represent 10% of its annual consolidated revenue.

These latest moves to end relationships with certain physician staffing firms seem to have escalated in recent years, Sarah Kahn, a credit analyst for S&P Global, told Healthcare Dive.

Since the insurer’s 2018 tussle with ER staffing firm Envision, “it’s sort of ramped up and become more aggressive and more abrupt and more pervasive,” Kahn said of the contract disputes.

 

United said the volume of negotiations it’s involved in has not changed in recent years, and added that it expects to renegotiate the same amount of contracts in 2020 that it did in 2019. However, United pointed a finger at a small number of physician staffing firms, backed by private equity, that are attempting to apply pressure on United to preserve the same high rates.

Private equity firms have been increasingly interested in healthcare over the past few years, accelerating acquisitions of medical practices from 2013 to 2016. Private equity acquired 355 physician practices, representing 1,426 sites of care and more than 5,700 physicians over that time frame, according to recent research in JAMA. The firms had a particular focus on anesthesiology with 69 practices acquired, followed by emergency physicians at 43.

Mednax is a publicly traded company. But Envision is owned by investment firm KKR; TeamHealth is owned by private equity firm Blackstone; and U.S. Anesthesia Partners is backed by Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe.

 

Proposed legislation around surprise billing may be influencing United’s actions, Kailash Chhaya, vice president and senior analyst at Moody’s, told Healthcare Dive. Congress has been weighing legislation that seeks to eliminate surprise billing, mainly through two vehicles, either using benchmark rates or arbitration.

If Congress ultimately decides on a bill that uses benchmark rates, or ties reimbursement for out-of-network providers to a benchmark rate (or average), it would benefit insurers like United to lower its average rate for certain services, Chhaya said. One way to do that is to end relationships with high-cost providers.

“It would help payers like UnitedHealth if that benchmark rate is low,” Chhaya said.

In late 2018, United threatened to drop Envision from its network, alleging the firm’s rates were responsible for driving up healthcare costs, according to a letter the payer sent hundreds of hospitals across the country. United and Envision eventually agreed to terms, but United seemed to outmuscle Envision as the deal secured “materially lower payment rates for Envision” that resulted in lower earnings, S&P Global analysts wrote in a recent report.

In 2019, United began terminating its contracts with TeamHealth, which has a special focus on emergency medicine. The terminations affect two-thirds of TeamHealth’s contracts through July 1. The squeeze from United caused Moody’s to also change Team Health’s outlook to negative as an eventual agreement would likely mean lower reimbursement and lower profitability for company, the ratings agency said.

“They’re trying to lower their payments to providers. Period,” David Peknay, director at S&P Global, told Healthcare Dive.​

 

Data shows prices — not usage — is driving healthcare spending. Physician staffing firms are frequently used for ER services and the ER and outpatient surgery experienced the largest growth in spending between 2014 and 2018, according to data from the Health Care Cost Institute.

United said it had been negotiating with TeamHealth since 2017 and does not believe TeamHealth should be paid significantly more than other in-network ER doctors for the same services. United alleges its median rate for chest pains is $340. But if a TeamHealth doctor provides the care it charges $1,508.​

“As Team Health continues to see more aggressive and inappropriate behavior by payors to either reduce, delay, or deny payments, we have increased our investment in legal resources to address specific situations where we believe payor behavior is inappropriate or unlawful,” according to a statement provided to Healthcare Dive.

TeamHealth said it will not balance bill patients in the interim.

 

The pressure from payers, particularly United, is unlikely to relent. The payer insures more than 43 million people in the U.S. through its commercial and public plans.

“I don’t think anyone is safe from such abrupt terminations,” Kahn said. However, United disputes the characterization of abruptly terminating contracts and says in many cases it has been negotiating with providers to no avail.

Likely targets in the future may include firms with a focus on emergency services, which tend to be high-cost areas, S&P’s analysts said. In their latest report, Kahn and Peknay pointed to The Schumacher Group, which is the third-largest player in emergency staffing services. However, it commands a market share of less than 10%, far less than its rivals Envision and TeamHealth.

Smaller firms may not be able to weather the pressure as effectively as very large staffing organizations.

For those smaller groups, it may be wise for them “to sit tight on their cash or prepare from some pressure,” Kahn said.

Although some believe it may influence other payers to follow suit, Dean Ungar, vice president and senior analyst with Moody’s, said United may be uniquely placed to exert this pressure because it has its own group of providers it can use and considerable scale.

“They are better positioned to play hardball,” Ungar said.

 

 

 

 

Politicians Tackle Surprise Bills, but Not the Biggest Source of Them: Ambulances

Image result for Politicians Tackle Surprise Bills, but Not the Biggest Source of Them: Ambulances

A legislative push in Congress and states to end unexpected medical bills has omitted the ambulance industry.

After his son was hit by a car in San Francisco and taken away by ambulance, Karl Sporer was surprised to get a bill for $800.

Mr. Sporer had health insurance, which paid for part of the ride. But the ambulance provider felt that amount wasn’t enough, and billed the Sporer family for the balance.

“I paid it quickly,” Mr. Sporer said. “They go to collections if you don’t.”

That was 15 years ago, but ambulance companies around the nation are still sending such surprise bills to customers, as Mr. Sporer knows well. These days, he oversees the emergency medical services in neighboring Alameda County. The contract his county negotiated allows a private ambulance company to send similar bills to insured patients.

In most parts of medical care, you can choose a doctor or hospital that takes your insurance. But there are some types of care where politicians have begun tackling the “surprise” bills that occur when, say, patients go to an emergency room covered by their insurance and are treated by a physician who is not.

Five states have passed laws this year to restrict surprise billing in hospitals and doctor’s offices. Congress is working on a similar package of measures, after President Trump held a news conference in May urging action on the issue.

But none of these new policies will protect patients from surprise bills like the one Mr. Sporer received. Ordinary ambulances that travel on roads have been left out of every bill.

“Ambulances seem to be the worst example of surprise billing, given how often it occurs,” said Christopher Garmon, a health economist at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “If you call 911 for an ambulance, it’s basically a coin flip whether or not that ambulance will be in or out of network.”

Mr. Garmon’s research finds that 51 percent of ground ambulance rides will result in an out-of-network bill. For emergency room visits, that figure stands at only 19 percent.

Congress has shown little appetite to include ambulances in a federal law restricting surprise billing. One proposal would bar surprise bills from air ambulances, helicopters that transport patients who are at remote sites or who have life-threatening injuries. (These types of ambulances tend to be run by private companies.)

But that interest has not extended to more traditional ambulance services — in part because many are run by local and municipal governments.

Lamar Alexander, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and a key author of a Senate surprise billing proposal, said in an email that surprise bills from air ambulances were the more pressing issue because federal law prevents any local regulation of their prices. “Unlike air ambulances, ground ambulances can be regulated by states,” said Mr. Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee. “And Congress should continue to learn more about how to best solve that problem.”

The ambulance industry has brought its case to Capitol Hill, arranging meetings between members of Congress and their local ambulance operators.

“When we talk to our members of Congress, what we really emphasize is that we’re a little different from the other providers in the surprise billing discussion,” said Shawn Baird, president-elect of the American Ambulance Association. “We have a distinct, public process. The emergency room isn’t subject to any oversight of that kind.”

Patient advocates contend that this public oversight isn’t doing enough to protect patients, who often face surprise bills and forceful collection tactics from ambulance providers.

Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, worked on a 2016 California law to restrict surprise billing. Initially, he thought it made sense to include ambulances in that legislation.

“It’s our experience that ambulance providers bill quicker and are more aggressive in sending bills to collection,” Mr. Wright said. “If they’re being more aggressive, you might want legislation to deal with that one first.”

But obstacles quickly began to mount. Some were about policy, like whether California would need to offset the revenue local governments would lose.

Then there were the politics. “There is the political reality that it’s hard to go after an entire industry at once,” Mr. Wright said. “It’s hard to have a bill opposed by doctors and hospitals and ambulances. We did manage to get a strong protection against doctor billing, but that was an epic, brutal, three-year fight.”

The California law that passed in 2016 did not regulate ambulance prices.

Patient groups elsewhere also say they ran into political trouble. Of the five states that passed surprise billing regulations in 2019, only Colorado’s new law takes aim at ambulance billing — not by regulating it, but by forming a committee to study the issue.

“The surprise bills laws are hard enough to get,” said Chuck Bell, program director for advocacy at Consumer Reports, who worked to pass a Florida surprise billing law in 2016. “You’re struggling with health plans, hospitals and doctors and other provider groups. At a certain point you don’t want to invite another big gorilla in the room to further widen the brawl.”

On Capitol Hill, the ambulance services have been less aggressive than other health care providers in lobbying against their inclusion in reforms. But lawmakers have largely declined to even include them in the conversation.

Consumer advocates say the lack of state-level legislation has been a barrier.

“Since there are issues related to ambulances being run by municipalities, and, at the state level, there hasn’t been a lot of model law to inform federal law, I think that’s made some members hesitant to wade into that space,” said Claire McAndrew, the director of campaigns and partnerships at the health care consumer group Families USA.

Local governments generally finance their ambulance services through a mix of user fees and taxes. If ambulances charge less to patients, they typically need more government funding.

Municipal governments often publish the prices of their ambulance services online, and they can range substantially. In Moraga and Orinda, in the Bay Area, the base rate for an ambulance ride is $2,600, plus $42 for each mile traveled. In Marion County, Fla., the most basic kind of ambulance ride costs $550, plus $11.25 per mile.

In many communities, there is no choice of ambulances.

Older patients are not charged such fees. Medicare, which also covers some people with disabilities, pays set prices for ambulance rides — a base rate of around $225 for the most typical type of care, in addition to a mileage fee — and forbids the companies to send patients additional bills.

In Bucks County, Pa., where it is $1,500 for a basic ambulance ride, in addition to $16 per mile, the emergency medical service gets 78 percent of its revenue from ambulance billing, according to Chuck Pressler, the executive director of the Central Bucks Emergency Medical Services. The rest of the budget comes from taxes raised by local cities and fund-raising drives.

“There is an expectation that we just plant money trees, that people should come in and work for free,” Mr. Pressler said of proposals to tamp down ambulance billing. “When was the last time you saw the police send out a fund-raiser? They don’t have to do that. Why do we have to raise money to come get you when you’re sick?”