On Thursday, the Biden administration issued the first of what is expected to be a series of new regulations aimed at implementing the No Surprises Act, passed by Congress last year and signed into law by President Trump, which bans so-called “surprise billing” by out-of-network providers involved in a patient’s in-network hospital visit.
The interim final rule, which takes effect in 2022, prohibits surprise billing of patients covered by employer-sponsored and individual marketplace plans, requiring providers to give advance warning if out-of-network physicians will be part of a patient’s care, limiting the amount of patient cost-sharing for bills issued by those providers, and prohibiting balance billing of patients for fees in excess of in-network reimbursement amounts.
The rule also establishes a process for determining allowable rates for out-of-network care, involving comparison to prevailing statewide rates or the involvement of a neutral arbitrator, but falls short of specifying a baseline price for arbitrators to use in determining allowable charges. That methodology, along with other details, will be part of future rulemaking, which will be issued later this year.
Of note, the rule does not include a ban on surprise billing forground ambulance services, which were excluded by Congress in the law’s final passage—even though more than half of all ambulance trips result in an out-of-network bill. Expect intense lobbying by industry interests to continue as the details of future rulemaking are worked out, as has been the case since before the law was passed.
While burdensome for patients,surprise billing has become a lucrative business model for some large, investor-owned specialist groups, who will surely look to minimize the law’s impact on their profits.
A California hospital was properly dismissed from a lawsuit alleging it violated state consumer protection laws by failing to disclose emergency room visit fees before treatment, a state appellate court ruled June 29.
Joshua Yebba filed the lawsuit against AHMC Anaheim (Calif.) Regional Medical Center, alleging the hospital violated California’s Unfair Competition Law and Consumer Legal Remedies Act when it did not disclose a separate fee for an emergency room visit before treating him. Mr. Yebba claimed he would have gone to a different ER if he knew about the fee. He sued on behalf of himself and others who allegedly were charged the separate ER fee without knowing about it.
The lawsuit centered on whether the hospital had a duty to disclose the ER fee to patients before treating them and whether the hospital violated the consumer protection laws by not disclosing them.
The hospital argued that it fulfilled any duty to disclose the fee because it has a written or electronic copy of its chargemaster available. However, Mr. Yebba contended that Anaheim Regional had a duty to tell him personally while checking in or to at least post a sign about the fees in the ER.
A lower court dismissed the case against the hospital on the grounds that Anaheim Regional had no duty to disclose the separate ER fee to Mr. Yebba before treating him and that the allegations didn’t violate the consumer protection acts.
The California Court of Appeals 4th District affirmed the dismissal, saying that California lawmakers have determined what pricing information hospitals must disclose to patients and when, and a court decision increasing the requirements “upsets the legislative balance between the consumers’ right to information and the hospitals’ burden of providing it.”
Facing intense criticism from hospital executives and emergency physicians, the nation’s largest health insurer, UnitedHealthcare (UHC), delayed the implementation of a controversial policy aimed at reducing what it considers to be unnecessary use of emergency services by its enrollees.
The policy, which would have gone into effect next month, would have denied payment for visits to hospital emergency departments for reasons deemed to be “non-emergent” after retrospective review. Similar to a policy implemented by insurer Anthem several years ago, which led to litigation and Congressional scrutiny, the UHC measure would have exposed patients to potentially large financial obligations if they “incorrectly” visited a hospital ED.
Critics pointed to longstanding statutory protections intended to shield patients from this kind of financial gatekeeping: the so-called “prudent layperson standard” came into effect in the 1980s following the rise of managed care, and requires insurance companies to provide coverage for emergency services based on symptoms, not final diagnosis. UHC now says it will hold off on implementing the change until after the COVID-19 national health emergency has ended, and will use the time to educate consumers and providers about the policy.
Like many critics, we’re gobsmacked by the poor timing of United’s policy change—emergency visits are still down more than 20 percent from pre-pandemic levels, and concerns still abound that consumers are foregoing care for potentially life-threatening conditions because they’re worried about coronavirus exposure. Perhaps UHC is trying to “lock in” reduced ED utilization for the post-pandemic era, or perhaps they never intended to enforce the policy, hoping that the mere threat of financial liability might discourage consumers from visiting hospital emergency rooms.
While we share the view that consumers need better education about how and when to seek care, combined with more robust options for appropriate care, this kind of draconian policy on the part of UnitedHealthcare just underscores why many simply don’t trust profit-driven insurance companies to safeguard their health.
The nation’s largest commercial insurer is taking a closer look at whether visits to the emergency room by some of its members are necessary. Starting July 1, UnitedHealthcare will evaluate ER claims using a number of factors to determine if the visit was truly an emergency for its fully insured commercial members across many states, according to a provider bulletin.
If UnitedHealthcare finds the visit was a non-emergency, the visit will be “subject to no coverage or limited coverage,” the provider alert states.
However, a statement provided to Healthcare Dive said the insurer will reimburse for non-emergency care according to the member’s benefit plan. In other words, the amount paid by UnitedHealthcare may be less if deemed a non-emergency.
Patients seeking out the pricey ER setting for minor illnesses that could have been treated elsewhere has been a perennial issue for the healthcare industry.Misuse of the nation’s emergency departments for minor ailments costs the nation’s healthcare system $32 billion a year, according to a previous report from UnitedHealth Group, the parent firm of UnitedHealthcare.
Providers worry such policies will lead to a chilling effect, causing patients to hesitate even in a true emergency such as a heart attack or stroke. Some of those concerns about the effects on patients were aired on Twitter this week after the provider bulletin became public.
UnitedHealthcare’s policy contains exclusions, including observation stays, visits by children under the age of two and admissions from the ER. It’s not clear precisely how many patients will be impacted but UnitedHealthcare had a total of 26.2 million commercial members at the end of 2020.
The insurer said this is an attempt to ensure healthcare is more affordable. To curb costs, they want patients to seek out treatment in a more “appropriate setting” like an urgent care facility.
Other major insurers have enacted similar policies in the past and faced pushback from the public and providers.
Anthem in recent years has also enacted policies that put patients on the hook for the ER bill if they sought care that didn’t warrant a trip to the ER. The policy also attracted scrutinyfrom then Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, who requested Anthem turn over internal documents over the policy and the Blues player ultimately scaled back some of its policies amid pushback from doctors and others.
Providers have argued these policies collide with federal law that require emergency rooms to treat any patient that shows up, regardless of their ability to pay.
UnitedHealthcare does have a process in place for those to contest a visit that was deemed a non-emergency.
As we shared recently, post-pandemic healthcare volume is not returning evenly. While outpatient volume is rebounding quickly, other settings remain sluggish, especially the emergency department. We partnered with healthcare data analytics company Stratasan to take a closer look at ED volume decline. As shown in the graphic above, nationally, ED visits were down 27 percent in 2020, compared to 2019. ED-only volume (cases that started and ended in the ED) took a large hit across last year, down nearly a third from 2019. We expect that a portion of this ED-only volume will never fully recover to pre-COVID levels, with patient demand permanently shifting to lower-acuity care settings, including virtual, and some patients avoiding care altogether for minor ailments as they learn to “live with” problems like back pain.
ED-to-observation volume saw the greatest decline in 2020, likely as a result both of patients avoiding the ED, and presenting in the ED sicker, meeting the criteria for inpatient admission. However,ED-to-inpatient volume, which fell only seven percent in 2020, has been returning. In the second half of 2020, the ED-to-inpatient admission rate was 20 to 30 percent higher than the pre-COVID baseline. Across all three categories of ED volume, pediatrics saw steeper declines compared to adult cases. While some further ED volume rebound is anticipated, health systems should expect that fewer, but sicker, patients will be the new normal for hospital emergency departments.
Fewer low-acuity patients utilizing high-cost emergency care is good news from a public health perspective, but health systems must bolster other access channels like urgent care and telemedicine to ensure patients have convenient access for emergent care needs.
Though consumers say they’re increasingly confident in returning to healthcare settings, hospital volume is not returning with the same momentum across the board. Using the most recent data from analytics firm Strata Decision Technology, covering the first quarter of this year, the graphic above shows that observation, inpatient, and emergency department volumes all remain below pre-COVID levels.
Consumers are still most wary about returning to the emergency department, with volume down nearly 20 percent across the past year. Meanwhile, hospital outpatient visits rebounded quickly, and have been growing steadily month over month, finishing March 2021 at 36 percent above the 2019 level.
Meanwhile, a recent report from the Commonwealth Fund shows that no ambulatory specialty fully made up for the COVID volume hit by the end of last year. But some areas, including rheumatology, urology, and adult primary care, have bounced back faster than others.
With continued success in rolling out vaccines and reducing COVID cases, we’d expect a continued recovery of most hospital visit volume. It may be, however, that some areas, such as the emergency department, will never fully recover to pre-COVID levels. To the extent those visits are now being replaced by more appropriate telemedicine and urgent care utilization, that’s welcome news.
But the continued lag of inpatient admissions indicates that some of the loss of emergency volume is more worrisome—warranting continued efforts on the part of providers to reassure patients it’s safe to use healthcare services. Stay tuned as our team continues to dig into this data.
Although urgent care centers deter some lower-acuity patients from a costly emergency department visit, they are not associated with a drop in total healthcare spending, according to a study published in Health Affairsin April.
For the study, researchers used insurance claims and enrollment data from 2008 to 2019 from a managed care plan to understand if the presence of an urgent care center substantially decreased lower-acuity ED visits.
The authors found that the entry of an urgent care center into a ZIP code deterred lower-acuity ED visits, but the effect was small.
The study found that the reduction of just one lower-acuity ED visit was associated with 37 additional urgent care visits. In other words, the number of urgent care visits per enrollee required to reduce one ER visit is 37.
The study authors found that the prevention of each $1,646 lower-acuity ED visit was offset by an increase of $6,237 in urgent care center costs.
As a result, the study authors said that despite ED visits costing more per visit, the use of urgent care centers increased net overall spending on lower-acuity care.
“This study documents for the first time that urgent care centers are associated with increased overall costs for lower-acuity visits across the ED and urgent care settings,” the study authors concluded.
Even as surgery and office visit volume rebounds, hospitals across the country continue to report that emergency department volume remains persistently depressed, down 10 to 20 percent compared to before the pandemic. The shift is even more drastic in pediatrics, with some pediatric hospitals and programs reporting that emergency care volume is seeing double the rate of decline.
Pediatric volume has been hit with a “double whammy”: with many schools and day cares still closed, contagious illnesses have plummeted. Fewer kids in youth sports means fewer injuries. And unlike adult hospitals, pediatric facilities haven’t filled their beds with COVID patients.“Of all our services, pediatric hospitalists have taken the greatest hit,” one children’s hospital physician leader shared. “Their service is usually full this time of the year with flu and RSV [respiratory syncytial virus]. But with kids not interacting with each other, general pediatric admissions have cratered.” Empty EDs have led some pediatric hospitals to shutter adjacent urgent care clinics: “It doesn’t make sense to operate an empty ED and an empty after-hours clinic”.
For patients, however, this can bring unexpected financial consequences, as they’ll now get an ED bill for services they would formerly have received in urgent care. But while pediatric hospitals have taken a greater volume hit, they’re also likely to see a faster rebound. Once kids are back to school and sports, the usual illnesses and injuries will likely return, and we’d guess parents won’t hesitate to seek care.
Patient volumes were uneven in 2020, and a new report shows volumes will likely remain below pre-pandemic levels in 2021. This indicates challenges for hospitals looking to stabilize their finances — but there are some key strategies that can help.
Though hospital finances recovered to some extent by the end of 2020, the industry is not out of the woods yet. However, with strategic investments, especially in outpatient care and technology, hospitals and health systems can help buoy their finances in this challenging time, industry observers said.
Patient volumes have fluctuated wildly after the Covid-19 pandemic hit as Covid-19 patients flocked to hospitals and those needing or seeking elective surgery and other care staying away. Not surprisingly, this has had a significant impact on health systems’ financial health.
But outpatient settings and digital solutions offer some revenue-generating opportunities for hospitals.
“A number of the major players and some of the bigger regional systems in the country now are in a place where they get more of their revenue from the outpatient side as opposed to the inpatient side,” said Dr. Sanjay Saxena, global healthcare leader, Payers, Providers, Health Care Systems & Services and managing director at Boston Consulting Group, in a phone interview.
In fact, outpatient care was the only healthcare setting that saw an increase in patient volumes in 2020. Though emergency department visits and inpatient volumes were down from July to December last year compared to the same period in 2019, outpatient volumes actually increased by 5%, according to a report by consumer credit reporting agency TransUnion.
Healthcare providers that have well-established and expansive outpatient and ambulatory care businesses will be able to weather patient volume trends better in 2021 than those who do not, said Saxena.
Take HCA Healthcare, for example. The Nashville, Tennessee-based healthcare giant’s revenues jumped to $14.2 billion in the fourth quarter of last year, up from $13.5 billion in the same period in 2019. HCA’s ability to move care outside of the inpatient setting to the ambulatory environment really helped their financial performance, said Saxena.
On the other hand, smaller and more rural hospitals, which depend heavily on ED and inpatient care, may face a challenging year, he added.
Another key investment for hospitals will be in digital solutions to help them manage the ups and downs of patient volume.
“Resilience as a broad topic for provider executives is absolutely top of mind,” said Gurpreet Singh, health services leader at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, in a phone interview. “And resiliency can be achieved in a number of different ways. One way is [figuring out] — can you predict demand a little bit better?”
Patient demand forecasting solutions will be popular, with 74% of health executives recently surveyed by PwC’s Health Research Institute saying their organizations would invest more in predictive modeling in 2021.
Further, hospitals will see savings in some unexpected places. For example, with an increasingly remote and mobile healthcare workforce, hospitals may see cost savings on real estate and facility leases, said Singh.
They can use these savings to invest further in telehealth and at-home care programs to expand care outside of the four walls of the hospital, he added.
The industry has to come to terms with changes brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, including the shifts in care delivery and patient preferences.
“Some of these things are structurally significant changes,” said Saxena. “Organizations ignore these things…at their peril. Some leading organizations and systems will find a way to embrace [these changes] and leapfrog others in the market coming out of 2021.”