New York judge dismisses surgeon’s lawsuit challenging surprise billing law

A New York federal judge on Wednesday dismissed a surgeon’s legal challenge that sought to roll back key pieces of a federal law that protects patients from surprise out-of-network bills.

Judge Ann Donnelly ruled against the surgeon, finding that the law is constitutional, and dismissed the case for lack of standing and dismissed the surgeon’s request for a preliminary injunction.

Katie Keith, a lawyer and health policy expert at Georgetown University who tracks surprise billing litigation, called the ruling good news for consumers.

The lawsuit threatened to once again expose millions of patients to surprise out-of-network bills, Keith previously said in a Health Affairs report on the litigation.

Daniel Haller, a surgeon, and his private practice filed suit in December against federal regulators alleging that the ban on surprise billing was unconstitutional along with the independent dispute resolution process, the way in which providers and payers are supposed to resolve payment disagreements.

Haller said the law deprives physicians the right to be paid a reasonable value for their services, according to the complaint.

Under the law, physicians and insurers can enter into an independent dispute resolution process to come to an agreement on the payment for services. The process was intended to keep patients out of the middle of these payment disputes.

Haller argued the process favored insurers — not providers.

However, a key part of that process was struck down by a Texas judge, who ruled in favor of providers in February.

Donnelly said Haller and his team did not show that they even went through the arbitration, or IDR, process, “much less that the IDR process resulted in a payment amount below the reasonable value,” according to Wednesday’s opinion.

“At the time of oral argument — almost six months after the Act went into effect — the plaintiffs could not say whether they had participated in the IDR process. They do not allege that the IDR process has caused any concrete harm, so their claims of constitutional injury are speculative,” Donnelly said.

Haller’s practice, Long Island Surgical, and its team of six physicians perform procedures on patients who are admitted after an emergency department visit.

Almost 80% of Long Island Surgical’s patients have an insurance plan that does not have a contractual relationship with the surgical group. In other words, Haller and his colleagues are almost always out-of-network, potentially putting patients at risk of a surprise medical bill.

The No Surprises Act tried to solve this problem, and it bans surprise billing in most cases.

The law aimed to tackle one of the most frustrating issues in healthcare, which could ensnare even savvy patients. Patients could be unknowingly treated by out-of-network providers, and then get bills their insurers refused to pay in full or part, leaving them stuck to pay the remaining balance.

Do Medicare Advantage Networks Vary by Plan within Contract?

Medicare Advantage (MA) is the private insurance alternative to traditional Medicare. MA organizations contract with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to offer eligible beneficiaries residing in a defined geographic service area (a collection of counties) a selection of private plans. Insurers may offer multiple plans across different plan types under one contract. The service area is defined at the contract-level, and for most MA plans, service areas can include a single county or a collection of multiple counties. (There are other types of plans for which there are constraints on the boundaries of the service area, but these don’t account for very much of MA enrollment.)

As MA-offering insurers contract with CMS, they establish networks that govern patient liability for seeing in- and out-of-network providers. Consequently, plans will vary in their cost-sharing structures and benefit designs as they assume different levels of liability for the cost of out-of-network providers. Overall, plans will cover the cost of care (less copays and deductibles) for patients seeing providers in-network, and certain plan types may require that patients pay more for out-of-network services or receive referrals/prior authorization from primary care providers (PCP) to see specialists.

The most common plan types offered by MA insurers include the following:

  • Preferred Provider Organizations (PPOs) are considered the most flexible type of plan in providing access to care and covering it out-of-network. PPO enrollees can use out-of-network providers for covered services without a referral from a PCP, albeit at greater cost to them than in-network providers.
  • Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs), in comparison to PPOs, are more restrictive plans that provide less access to care and less coverage for out-of-network providers, with the exception of emergency, urgent, and dialysis care. HMO members are required to select a PCP and must get authorization for most specialty services. For any out-of-network services received, the patient bears the full cost, up to the traditional Medicare rate.
  • Health Maintenance Organization Point-of- Service (HMO-POS) are a hybrid plan between PPOs and HMOs. Like an HMO, members must select a PCP for care coordination, but they do not need a referral for specialty services. (However, some services may require prior authorization for coverage.) Like a PPO, this plan does provide some coverage for out-of-network providers.

The differences across plan types in access to and cost sharing for out-of-network providers leads to the important question, do MA networks vary by plan within contract? For example, in Figure 1 below, do the beneficiaries enrolled in Plan 1 or 2 under Contract A have the same set of in- and out-of-network providers (likewise for the beneficiaries in Plans 1-3 under contract B)? More specifically, what if Plan 1 is an HMO and Plan 2 is a HMO-POS plan, do they share the same network?

Figure 1: CMS Medicare Advantage and Part D Contract and Plan Enumeration (2010). Source: https://ncvhs.hhs.gov/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/100719p08.pdf

The simple answer seems to be: not necessarily, though more recent regulations attempt to push insurers toward having the same networks across plans within contracts.

For instance, prior to 2019, CMS only reviewed the adequacy of an MA organization’s contracted network under a “triggering event,” like if an organization were to operate a new plan, expand coverage to additional service areas, or in a response to inadequate network complaints. The scope of CMS’ review varied depending on the triggering event that occurred. In some cases, CMS could only conduct partial reviews of a contract’s network, looking at a select set of specialties or counties. A study by the US Government Accountability Office found that between 2013 and 2015, CMS had reviewed less than 1% of all networks. Without regular scrutiny by regulators, it seems likely that networks varied across plans within contracts.

Under the current MA Network Adequacy Criteria Guidance, CMS assesses network adequacy requirements both under triggering events (as explained above) and, separate from that, on a triennial-basis at the contract-level. CMS has previously commented in the 2021 Final Rule that this approach allows them to assess the adequacy of organizations’ networks across all of their plan types (HMOs, PPOs, SNPs) and consider the broadest availability of providers and facilities for an organization. Again, this suggests that insurers may vary networks across plans within contracts.

There are at least two scenarios for which we know certain plans can and likely do have different networks compared with other plans in the contract.

  • Special Needs Plans (SNPs) are plans designed for individuals with specific diseases or characteristics, such as those who are dual-eligible, have institutional care needs, or have a chronic condition. SNPs can be allowed by regulators to augment the contract’s network to integrate care management teams and specialty providers to accommodate beneficiaries’ complex care needs under the plan’s Model of Care. While SNPs may be granted additional flexibility to alter the contract-level networks established, CMS does not allow SNPs to narrow or shrink that network. They can only expand it.
  • Provider Specific Plan (PSPs) are plans often found under large, integrated medical groups or provider groups that are the primary bearers of risk. PSP enrollees have access to a smaller subset of in-network providers. Since this plan type has a network of fewer providers than the overall contracted network, organizations must request to offer a PSP from CMS and attest that these plans are in compliance with network adequacy requirements.

Future work with Vericred provider-network data could be one approach to exploring variations in networks among plans under the same contract and service area, beyond the cases listed above. If networks are varying across HMO, PPO, and HMO-POS plans within contracts, it would be interesting to explore just how different they are from one another. Moreover, as CMS reviews continues to review network adequacy requirements at the contract-level (and if networks do differ by plan), one should consider the breadth of the network that organizations are submitting for evaluation. To what extent all plans in a contract are in compliance with network adequacy rules warrants future investigation.

Out-of-pocket limits aren’t silver bullets

Part of the reason why medical debt is so high is because many Americans don’t have enough savings to pay their deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs, according to a second KFF analysis.

Driving the news: Health insurance plans’ out-of-pocket limits prevent enrollees from paying limitless sums of money for medical care. But that doesn’t mean they protect people from having to pay several thousands of dollars — which not everyone has lying around.

  • Deductibles alone, which people must pay before coverage for most services kicks in, are frequently thousands of dollars and can exceed the amount of liquid assets a household has.

By the numbers: Over 40% of multi-person households can’t cover a mid-range employer family plan deductible of $4,000, and 61% don’t have enough to cover a high-range deductible.

  • The ability to pay out-of-pocket costs varies significantly by income.

America’s giant medical debt

Americans owe at least $195 billion of medical debt, despite 90% of the population having some kind of health coverage, according to new research from the Peterson Center on Healthcare and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Why it matters: People are spending down their savings and skimping on food, clothing and household items to pay their medical bills, Adriel writes.

About 16 million people, or 6% of U.S. adults, owe more than $1,000 in medical bills, and 3 million people owe more than $10,000.

  • The financial burden falls disproportionately on people with disabilities, those in generally poor health, Black Americans and people living in the South or in non-Medicaid expansion states, per the research.

Go deeper: 16% of privately-insured adults say they would need to take on credit card debt to meet an unexpected $400 medical expense, while 7% would borrow money from friends or family, per the research, which focused on adults who reported having more than $250 in unpaid bills as of December 2019. 

It’s not yet clear how much the pandemic and the recession factor into the picture, in part because many people delayed or went without care. There also was a small shift from employer-based coverage to Medicaid, which has little or no cost-sharing.

  • While the new federal ban on surprise billing limits exposure to some unexpected expenses, it only covers a fraction of the large medical bills many Americans face, the researchers say.

Mayo Clinic halts scheduling of out-of-network Medicare Advantage patients

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/mayo-clinic-halts-scheduling-out-network-medicare-advantage-patients

The Mayo Clinic in Minnesota is no longer scheduling appointments for patients in most Medicare Advantage plans, and has been gradually notifying patients throughout the year, in a move that could have consequences for insurers operating plans in the area, according to a Mayo Clinic spokesperson.

Some insurers, such as UnitedHealthcare, have been negotiating with the Mayo Clinic to bring them in-network for Medicare Advantage, in some cases asking them to outline their requested terms, but Mayo to date has yet to send out proposals.

Mayo has long been out of network for most Medicare Advantage plans, but has historically treated out-of-network MA patients and accepted their benefits, according to Mayo Clinic spokesperson Karl Oestreich.

According to the Star Tribune, the change occurred because Mayo saw a significant increase in patients covered by “non-contract” MA insurers. That increase, officials said, threatens to crowd out patients covered by in-network insurers.

Non-contract MA plans are those in which insurance companies have not negotiated payment rates for services with Mayo.

UnitedHealthcare, which has been out of network, is negotiating to bring Mayo in-network for MA members, according to Dustin Clark, vice president for communications at UHC.

“We have asked Mayo Clinic to outline requested terms to join our network for Medicare Advantage and haven’t received a proposal,” he told Healthcare Finance News. “We are committed to reaching an agreement at an affordable cost for the people we serve. We stand at the ready to work with Mayo to end this disruption.”

For UHC, it’s especially important that MA patients who traditionally received care at Mayo can continue to do so in the future.

Although Mayo Clinic does not participate in our network for Medicare Advantage, many of our members have received treatment from its physicians as part of their out-of-network benefits,” said Clark. “We understand how difficult this situation is for some of our members, which is why we are working with Mayo to ensure our Medicare Advantage members who are currently undergoing treatment or have an established relationship with the clinic can continue to see their physician.”

Mayo Clinic spokesperson Karl Oestreich said that medical need is the primary criteria for obtaining an appointment.

“In situations where medical need does not apply and to ensure appointments remain available for our Mayo Clinic patients, we no longer schedule routine visits for those whose coverage does not include Mayo Clinic,” he said. “Continuity of care and relationships with existing local and regional patients won’t be compromised.”

The primary issue, said Oestreich, is capacity, not reimbursement. He said Mayo doesn’t have the capacity to serve an ever-increasing number of patients, and needs to remain a good steward with its contracted plans.

“There was not a policy change, but a shift in enforcement to ensure Mayo has access for our contracted plans (not just Medicare) and those who truly need Mayo’s medical expertise,” he said. “This long-standing policy applies to all payers, not just Medicare Advantage.”

“The impact is to non-contract Medicare Advantage plans,” said Oestrich. “Mayo does not have contracts with these plans. Mayo is open to entering new contracts, but also must keep in mind the impact on capacity to ensure that we can continue to see those patients (regardless of payer) who are in the greatest need of the care Mayo provides.

“We understand that affected patients may be disappointed and frustrated. Patients should always ask their brokers and insurers whether their plans specifically have in-network coverage at Mayo Clinic.”

THE LARGER TREND

UnitedHealthcare, which already has significant market control with its MA plans, said it will strengthen its foothold in the space by expanding its MA plans in 2022, adding a potential 3.1 million members and reaching 94% of Medicare-eligible consumers in the U.S.

While UnitedHealthcare has a massive foothold in the Medicare Advantage space, it underwent scrutiny from the federal government earlier this month, when the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services blocked four Medicare Advantage plans from enrolling new members in 2022 because they didn’t spend the minimum threshold on medical benefits. Three UnitedHealthcare plans and one Anthem plan failed to hit the required 85% mark three years in a row.

Medicare Advantage plans are required to spend a minimum of 85% of premium dollars on medical expenses. Failure to do so for three consecutive years triggers the sanctions.

For UHC, the penalties apply to its MA plans in Arkansas, New Mexico and the Midwest, which encompasses Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa. UHC plans cover about 83,000 members, and the Anthem plan covers about 1,200 members. They cannot offer select plans to members until 2023, assuming they hit the 85% threshold next year – what’s called the medical loss ratio. If they fail to hit the threshold for five years in a row, the government will terminate the contracts.

UHC representatives told Bloomberg that it missed the 85% benchmark in certain markets in part because of patients deferring medical care due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

No Surprises Act implementation includes telehealth

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/no-surprises-act-implementation-includes-telehealth

Independent physician groups, which include telehealth docs, must now accept a rate that someone else has negotiated, expert says. 

The No Surprises Act has providers scrambling to understand the implications of a law that went into effect earlier this month.

Under the law, patients treated by an out-of-network physician can only be billed at the in-network rate. It protects patients from receiving surprise medical bills from the ER or air ambulance providers or for non-emergency services from out-of-network physicians at in-network facilities.

Patients can no longer receive balance bills – the difference between what the provider charges and what the insurer pays – or be charged a larger cost-sharing amount.

The congressional intent was to save patients sometimes thousands of dollars in unexpected, or surprise, medical bills. But applying the No Surprises Act to clinical care is being left to providers to sort out. 

A big question is the definition of an emergency and the benchmark used to determine when it ends, according to Kyle Faget, a partner at Foley who is co-chair of the firm’s Health Care and Life Sciences Practice Groups. She asked: Does the emergency end when the patient is stabilized, or should another standard apply? This includes emergency services for mental health and substance-use disorders.

Another question is around pre-planned services. Patients have to be notified who is providing the care and whether the physician is in-network. If the physician is out-of-network, patients must provide consent. But that can be tricky, for instance, if a patient scheduled for a planned C-section gets an out-of-network doctor who was not scheduled at the time the appointment was made.

At some hospitals, a new layer of administration is needed to comply with the law, Faget said.

Another area not well understood is how the law affects telehealth consults in the ER.

TELEHEALTH AND THE NO SURPRISES ACT

The law states that if treated by a telehealth clinician, the patient can only be billed the in-network rate, said Faget, who specializes in telehealth law.

Telehealth is often used in the ER, according to Faget. Most ER visits require a physician consultation, with hands-on medical care provided by a clinician other than the physician.

Pre-COVID-19, providers were in the embryonic stage of providing virtual emergency care, she said. The pandemic, and a shortage of physicians, spurred virtual care in the ER. 

These telehealth providers often work on a contracted basis. They are likely credentialed at the hospital but are not hospital employees, Faget said.

This means they are not credentialed with the insurer. Under the No Surprises Act, they are now subject to the in-network rates negotiated by the hospital. 

Telehealth ER physicians could negotiate their own contracts with insurers, but as a small group, they are not likely to get the higher rates they had prior to the implementation of the No Surprises Act.

“It’s an arduous contracting process, and small-group bargaining power is low,” Faget said. “The big hospital system has bargaining power. Those groups providing telehealth services won’t necessarily have agreements in place and, by definition, are out-of-network.”

Independent physician groups, which include telehealth docs, must now accept a rate that someone else has negotiated, Faget said. This fact can be more of an issue than the lower rate they’re now being paid, she said.

“I think telehealth will adapt,” Faget said. “I think it will become the way of doing business.”

WHY THIS MATTERS

The bottom line is that the No Surprises Act is doing what it promised to do – saving patients from getting a large bill not covered by insurance.

Surprise bills are a moral and ethical issue, Faget said. Patients, at their most vulnerable in the ER, are sent home only to get a $5,000 bill they never saw coming.

“It’s like kicking a person when they’re down,” Faget said.

However, in the larger healthcare ecosystem, ending surprise medical bills will ultimately result in cost-shifting, she said. 

“Think about the system globally: somebody is paying for something somewhere,” Faget said. “At the end of the day, somebody’s going to have to pay.”

THE LARGER TREND

Providers have told her that the No Surprises Act incentivizes insurance companies to lower their payments, Faget said.

The American Society of Anesthesiologists has accused BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina of doing this. A letter sent by BCBS of North Carolina to anesthesiology and other physician practices this past November threatens to terminate physicians’ in-network status unless they agree to payment reductions ranging from 10% to over 30%, according to ASA. 

The ASA saw this as proof of its prognostication to Congress upon passage of the No Surprises Act: that insurers would use loopholes in the law to leverage their market power.

The AHA and AMA have sued the Department of Health and Human Services  over implementation of a dispute-resolution process in the law they say favors the insurer. The arbitrator must select the offer closest to the qualifying payment amount. Under the rule, this amount is set by the insurer, giving the payer an unfair advantage, according to the lawsuit. 

Out-of-network costs spin out of control

https://www.axios.com/billed-and-confused-cindy-beckwith-out-of-network-care-578a22be-b6b4-4959-8333-9e2e970b19d5.html

Out of Network costs vary greatly among California PPO health plans -

People who have health insurance but get sick with rare diseases that require out-of-network care continue to face potentially unlimited costs.

The big picture: Federal regulations cap how much people pay out of pocket for in-network care, but no such limit exists for out-of-network care.

Zoom in: Cindy Beckwith, 57, of Bolton, Connecticut, was diagnosed with pulmonary artery sarcoma, a rare tumor on a main artery. She also has fibromuscular dysplasia, a rare blood vessel condition.

  • She has ConnectiCare health insurance, which she gets through her husband’s employer.
  • Her local doctors suggested she see specialists at the University of Pennsylvania Health System because her conditions were so uncommon, but the system was out-of-network.
  • “I had to go out of my network,” Beckwith said. “I didn’t have a choice.”

The bill: $20,138.40 from Penn Medicine, the parent of UPHS, a profitable system with $8.7 billion of revenue last year.

  • Over a few years, Beckwith received a lot of care from the hospital, including two open-heart surgeries and inpatient chemotherapy.
  • This bill showed charges of $270,000, just for services received in 2019. Beckwith and the hospital settled on $20,138.40. Penn Medicine “insisted” she pay a minimum of $441 per month until 2023, she said.
  • Beckwith and her husband have already paid more than $11,000, and even though she says they are doing OK with her various medical bills, “there’s not a lot of extra money left over.”

Between the lines: The new surprise billing regulation only protects patients if they get non-emergency care from out-of-network doctors at in-network facilities.

  • That means people with employer coverage that doesn’t have an out-of-pocket maximum for out-of-network care could experience large bills based on hospitals’ inflated charges, and have to negotiate payment on their own.
  • “Out-of-network charges kind of seem like a little bit of funny money to consumers,” said Katherine Hempstead, a health insurance expert at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “These are the things that make people feel kind of defeated.”
  • “We didn’t expect this to happen,” said Beckwith, who has worked in medical coding for 30 years, said of her condition. “When it does, it can wipe you out.”

The other side: Beckwith’s hospital and insurance providers did not make anyone available for interviews.

  • A ConnectiCare spokesperson said the insurer does “not speak about our members’ private health information.”
  • A Penn Medicine spokesperson said in a statement the system “has a longstanding commitment to work with patients to help them understand the costs associated with their care, including out-of-pocket costs.”

The resolution: After Axios submitted a HIPAA authorization waiver, signed by Beckwith, to Penn Medicine to discuss Beckwith’s case, Beckwith received a call from Penn Medicine, whom she hadn’t heard from in months.

  • The hospital knocked $4,000 off her remaining balance, telling her they reprocessed some old claims. She still owes almost $4,800.

El Camino Health cuts ties with Anthem, follows local trend

Hospitals clash with Anthem Blue Cross over health care prices, leaving  patients in a lurch | News | Palo Alto Online |

El Camino Health severed ties with Anthem after pricing disputes forced the provider to kill its contract, making it the most recent in a cast of Bay Area systems to have troubles with the insurer, according to the Mountain View Voice.

Over the past decade, four systems, including Mountain View, Calif.-based El Camino, have had contract struggles with Anthem related to claims that the insurer is penny-pinching. 

The result is a standoff, as Anthem has claimed in the past that regional healthcare costs are too high, explaining low service payment offers. 

While Anthem provided annual payment increases, the rate El Camino requested would raise premiums and copays for businesses and families, the insurer told the Mountain View Voice. El Camino said Anthem’s terms are “well below” that of other insurers. 

El Camino and Anthem are still negotiating, which could last up to between three and six months based on previous conflicts. Meanwhile, El Camino patients without critical healthcare needs are no longer in-network with Anthem.

Biden administration begins to implement a ban on surprise bills

https://mailchi.mp/bfba3731d0e6/the-weekly-gist-july-2-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

Biden Faces Health Industry Fight Over New 'Surprise' Billing Ban

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 2022prohibits 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 for ground 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.

Out-of-network payments in Medicare Advantage

What Are the Causes of Surprise Medical Bills?

The complexity of Medicare Advantage (MA) physician networks has been well-documented, but the payment regulations that underlie these plans remain opaque, even to experts. If an MA plan enrollee sees an out-of-network doctor, how much should she expect to pay?

The answer, like much of the American healthcare system, is complicated. We’ve consulted experts and scoured nearly inscrutable government documents to try to find it. In this post we try to explain what we’ve learned in a much more accessible way.

Medicare Advantage Basics

Medicare Advantage is the private insurance alternative to traditional Medicare (TM), comprised largely of HMO and PPO options. One-third of the 60+ million Americans covered by Medicare are enrolled in MA plans. These plans, subsidized by the government, are governed by Medicare rules, but, within certain limits, are able to set their own premiums, deductibles, and service payment schedules each year.

Critically, they also determine their own network extent, choosing which physicians are in- or out-of-network. Apart from cost sharing or deductibles, the cost of care from providers that are in-network is covered by the plan. However, if an enrollee seeks care from a provider who is outside of their plan’s network, what the cost is and who bears it is much more complex.

Provider Types

To understand the MA (and enrollee) payment-to-provider pipeline, we first need to understand the types of providers that exist within the Medicare system.

Participating providers, which constitute about 97% of all physicians in the U.S., accept Medicare Fee-For-Service (FFS) rates for full payment of their services. These are the rates paid by TM. These doctors are subject to the fee schedules and regulations established by Medicare and MA plans.

Non-participating providers (about 2% of practicing physicians) can accept FFS Medicare rates for full payment if they wish (a.k.a., “take assignment”), but they generally don’t do so. When they don’t take assignment on a particular case, these providers are not limited to charging FFS rates.

Opt-out providers don’t accept Medicare FFS payment under any circumstances. These providers, constituting only 1% of practicing physicians, can set their own charges for services and require payment directly from the patient. (Many psychiatrists fall into this category: they make up 42% of all opt-out providers. This is particularly concerning in light of studies suggesting increased rates of anxiety and depression among adults as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic).

How Out-of-Network Doctors are Paid

So, if an MA beneficiary goes to see an out-of-network doctor, by whom does the doctor get paid and how much? At the most basic level, when a Medicare Advantage HMO member willingly seeks care from an out-of-network provider, the member assumes full liability for payment. That is, neither the HMO plan nor TM will pay for services when an MA member goes out-of-network.

The price that the provider can charge for these services, though, varies, and must be disclosed to the patient before any services are administered. If the provider is participating with Medicare (in the sense defined above), they charge the patient no more than the standard Medicare FFS rate for their services. Non-participating providers that do not take assignment on the claim are limited to charging the beneficiary 115% of the Medicare FFS amount, the “limiting charge.” (Some states further restrict this. In New York State, for instance, the maximum is 105% of Medicare FFS payment.) In these cases, the provider charges the patient directly, and they are responsible for the entire amount (See Figure 1.)

Alternatively, if the provider has opted-out of Medicare, there are no limits to what they can charge for their services. The provider and patient enter into a private contract; the patient agrees to pay the full amount, out of pocket, for all services.

Figure 1: MA HMO Out-of-Network Payments

MA PPO plans operate slightly differently. By nature of the PPO plan, there are built-in benefits covering visits to out-of-network physicians (usually at the expense of higher annual deductibles and co-insurance compared to HMO plans). Like with HMO enrollees, an out-of-network Medicare-participating physician will charge the PPO enrollee no more than the standard FFS rate for their services. The PPO plan will then reimburse the enrollee 100% of this rate, less coinsurance. (See Figure 2.)

In contrast, a non-participating physician that does not take assignment is limited to charging a PPO enrollee 115% of the Medicare FFS amount, which can be further limited by state regulations. In this case, the PPO enrollee is also reimbursed by their plan up to 100% (less coinsurance) of the FFS amount for their visit. Again, opt-out physicians are exempt from these regulations and must enter private contracts with patients.

Figure 2: MA PPO Out-of-Network Payments

Some Caveats

There are two major caveats to these payment schemes (with many more nuanced and less-frequent exceptions detailed here). First, if a beneficiary seeks urgent or emergent care (as defined by Medicare) and the provider happens to be out-of-network for the MA plan (regardless of HMO/PPO status), the plan must cover the services at their established in-network emergency services rates.

The second caveat is in regard to the declared public health emergency due to COVID-19 (set to expire in April 2021, but likely to be extended). MA plans are currently required to cover all out-of-network services from providers that contract with Medicare (i.e., all but opt-out providers) and charge beneficiaries no more than the plan-established in-network rates for these services. This is being mandated by CMS to compensate for practice closures and other difficulties of finding in-network care as a result of the pandemic.

Conclusion

Outside of the pandemic and emergency situations, knowing how much you’ll need to pay for out-of-network services as a MA enrollee depends on a multitude of factors. Though the vast majority of American physicians contract with Medicare, the intersection of insurer-engineered physician networks and the complex MA payment system could lead to significant unexpected costs to the patient.

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