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.

Air Ambulance Costs Are Soaring

Air ambulance transport costs have skyrocketed in recent years, according to a new report from FAIR Health.

Notably, the average estimated in-network allowed amount for air ambulance transport increased 76.4%, from $8,855 in 2017 to $15,624 in 2020.

The jump was part of a general rise in costs for both airplane and helicopter air ambulance transport during this time period, FAIR Health said, which included increases in charge amounts (the amount charged to a patient who is uninsured or obtaining an out-of-network service), estimated in-network allowed amounts for privately insured patients (the total fee negotiated between an insurance plan and a provider for an in-network service), and Medicare reimbursement amounts.

The average charges associated with a fixed-wing air ambulance rose 27.6%, from $19,210 in 2017 to $24,507 in 2020, according to the report, and the average Medicare reimbursement amount increased by 4.7%, from $3,071 to $3,216.

For helicopter transport, the average charges associated with a rotary-wing air ambulance rose 22.2%, from $24,924 in 2017 to $30,446 in 2020. The average estimated in-network allowed amount increased 60.8%, from $11,608 to $18,668, and the average Medicare reimbursement amount again rose 4.7%, from $3,570 to $3,739.

Air ambulance services have been the subject of substantial policy focus,” said Robin Gelburd, president of FAIR Health, in a statement. “We hope that this study of air ambulance transport proves productive to policy makers, researchers, payors, providers, and consumers seeking to better understand this corner of the healthcare system.”

FAIR Health’s report also found that air ambulance claims increased 30% from 2016 to 2020 (0.7% to 0.9%) as a percentage of all ambulance (ground and air) claims.

In 2020, the most common diagnoses associated with fixed-wing air ambulance transport were chronic respiratory diseases, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and chronic respiratory failure, and the second most common was COVID-19, which accounted for 7% of fixed-wing air ambulance claims.

Because air ambulance transport is often used for patients in life-threatening situations, they generally have no control over type of transport or provider used, FAIR Health said. As a result, surprise bills occur frequently.

A number of states have made efforts to regulate air ambulance charges, but these attempts have been overturned by court rulings that state that such efforts are preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, the report noted.

However, the federal No Surprises Act, signed into law in December 2020, contained provisions to protect consumers from surprise bills, including those from out-of-network air ambulance service providers.

On September 30, HHS held a press call on one of its surprise billing rules, which would require companies to give patients “good faith estimates” of charges upfront and to submit a dispute resolution for out-of-network surprise bills.

Asked by MedPage Today whether air ambulances would be included, a senior administration official responded, “Yes, air ambulances are covered by this rule. They will go through a very, very similar independent dispute resolution process [as other providers]. I think the only thing different about the air ambulance process is the list of allowable information that the parties can bring to be considered in addition to the qualifying amount.”

AMA report: U.S. has “highly concentrated” payer markets that stifle competition  

https://medcitynews.com/2021/10/ama-report-u-s-has-highly-concentrated-payer-markets-that-stifle-competition/?utm_campaign=MCN%20Daily%20Top%20Stories&utm_medium=email&hsmi=166812730&_hsenc=p2ANqtz–Z_7y9-ZOPkhC7HI4RXSwuM5xDzd2B0uZi9sApeW1J89hQBktG-rqujxpBFiXmxEEnaK77vlq-7vHhr-qK8mxRgBmwA&utm_content=166812730&utm_source=hs_email

About 73% of health insurance markets are highly concentrated, and in 46% of markets, one insurer had a share of 50% or more, a new report from the American Medical Association shows. The report comes a few months after President Joe Biden directed federal agencies to ramp up oversight of healthcare consolidation.

The majority of health insurance markets in the U.S. are highly concentrated, curbing competition, according to a report released by the American Medical Association.

For the report, researchers reviewed market share and market concentration data for the 50 states and District of Columbia, and each of the 384 metropolitan statistical areas in the country.

They found that 73% of the metropolitan statistical area-level payer markets were highly concentrated in 2020. In 91% of markets, at least one insurer had a market share of 30%, and in 46% of markets, one insurer had a share of 50% or more.

Further, the share of markets that are highly concentrated rose from 71% in 2014 to 73% last year. Of those markets that were not highly concentrated in 2014, 26% experienced an increase large enough to enter the category by 2020.

In terms of national-level market shares of the 10 largest U.S. health insurers, UnitedHealth Group comes out on top with the largest market share in both 2014 and 2020, reporting 16% and 15% market share, respectively. Anthem comes in second with shares of 13% in 2014 and 12% in 2020.

But the picture looks different when it comes to the market share of health insurers participating in the Affordable Care Act individual exchanges. In 2014, Anthem held the largest market share among the top 10 insurers on the exchanges, with a share of 14%. By 2020, Centene had taken the top spot, with a share of 18%, while Anthem had slipped to fifth place, with a share of just 4%.

Another key entrant into the top 10 list in 2020 was insurance technology company Oscar Health, with 3% of the market share in the exchanges at the national level.

“These [concentrated] markets are ripe for the exercise of health insurer market power, which harms consumers and providers of care,” the report authors wrote. “Our findings should prompt federal and state antitrust authorities to vigorously examine the competitive effects of proposed mergers involving health insurers.”

The payer industry hit back. In a statement provided to MedCity News, America’s Health Insurance Plans, a national payer association, said that Americans have many affordable choices for their coverage, pointing to the fact that CMS announced average premiums for Medicare Advantage plans will drop to $19 per month in 2022 from $21.22 this year.

“Health insurance providers are an advocate for Americans, fighting for lower prices and more choices for them,” said Kristine Grow, senior vice president of communications at America’s Health Insurance Plans, in an email. “We negotiate lower prices with doctors, hospitals and drug companies, and consumers benefit from lower premiums as a result.”

Further, the report does not mention the provider consolidation that also contributes to higher healthcare prices. Mergers and acquisitions among hospitals and health systems have continued steadily over the past decade, remaining relatively impervious to even the Covid-19 pandemic.

Scrutiny around consolidation in the healthcare industry may grow. In July, President Joe Biden issued an executive order urging federal agencies to review and revise their merger guidelines through the lens of preventing patient harm.

The Federal Trade Commission has already said that healthcare businesses will be one of its priority targets for antitrust enforcement actions.

America’s major medical debt problem

https://mailchi.mp/d953ea288786/newsletter031821-4639518?e=ad91541e82

Concerns Mount Over Looming Surge in Bankruptcy as COVID Medical Debt Soars

Medical debt can be a crushing burden for families, and it is a major problem in the United States. The nonprofit RIP Medical Debt says it’s wiped out debt for 2.7 million patients since 2014, totalling more than $4.5 billion. One of the most famous health policy studies ever conducted — the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment — found that having Medicaid coverage reduced a person’s likelihood of having an unpaid medical bill sent to collection by 25%. Now a study published last month in JAMA offers new evidence on the relationship between Medicaid and medical debt, and the scale of the country’s medical debt problem.

Using a subset of credit reports from one major U.S. credit agency for every year between 2009 and 2020, researchers Raymond Kluender, Neale Mahoney, Francis Wong and Wesley Yin looked at the total amount of medical debt and new medical debt each year. They found that while both measures of medical debt have decreased almost every year since 2014, nearly 1 in 5 Americans were under collections for medical debt as of early 2020. They also found that since 2014, medical debt has been the largest source of debt for Americans, surpassing all other types of debt — credit cards, personal loans, utilities and phone bills — combined. And the medical debt was not evenly distributed around the country. Approximately, 1 in 4 individuals in the South were under collection for medical debt in 2020, but only 1 in 10 in the Northeast.

To assess the impact of Medicaid coverage on medical debt, Kluender and colleagues compared the total amount of new debt accrued by people living in states that expanded Medicaid and those that have not between 2009 and 2020, allowing them to confirm that any trends they identified didn’t pre-date Medicaid expansion in 2014. They found that between 2013 and 2020 the average amount of new medical debt decreased 34 percentage points more in states that expanded in 2014 compared to non-expansion states, and the drops were most prominent in the lowest income zip codes. The analysis can’t prove a causal relationship between medical debt and Medicaid expansion, but interestingly, the authors found no statistically significant difference in nonmedical debt between expansion and non-expansion states. This lack of an effect on nonmedical debt supports the association between Medicaid and reductions in medical debt.

The article does have limitations: It doesn’t include debts paid on a credit card or through payment plans; it doesn’t reflect the impact of COVID-19; and it can’t account for unobservable changes in policy or circumstance that might have coincided with Medicaid expansion and impacted medical debt. But it does add evidence to support the value of Medicaid coverage — a particularly timely finding, with more than 11 million people joining Medicaid since the start of the pandemic and Democrats in Congress looking to cover the more than 2 million people in the so-called coverage gap in the 12 non-expansion states.

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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Out-of-network payments in Medicare Advantage

Figure 1: MA HMO Out-of-Network Payments

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 optionsOne-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.

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.