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.

Setting the rules for settling “surprise bills”

https://mailchi.mp/a2cd96a48c9b/the-weekly-gist-october-1-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

Surprise Medical Bills: New Protections for Consumers Take Effect in 2022 |  KFF

On Thursday the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), along with other federal agencies, released the long-awaited second half of its proposed regulations implementing the No Surprises Act, passed by Congress at the end of last year, which bans “surprise billing” of patients who unsuspectingly receive care from out-of-network providers.

The interim final rule, which will take effect on January 1st after a comment and review period, lays out a process for addressing disputed patient bills, first through a 30-day “open negotiation” between the patient’s insurer and the out-of-network provider, and then through a federally-managed arbitration process.

Of most interest to insurers and providers who have lobbied fiercely for months to ensure a favorable interpretation of the law, the new regulation specifies that the outsider arbitrator, to be agreed upon by both parties, must begin with the presumption that the median in-network rate for services in the local market is the correct one. The arbitrator can then modify that price based on the specific circumstances of the case.

That method was broadly favored by insurers, and AHIP strongly endorsed the proposed approach, saying in a press release that “this is the right approach to encourage hospitals, healthcare providers, and health insurance providers to work together and negotiate in good faith.” Predictably, the hospital lobby felt otherwise; the American Hospital Association reacted by calling the rule “a windfall for insurers”, saying that it “unfairly favors insurers to the detriment of hospitals and physicians who actually care for patients.” 

The ultimate winners here are patients, who will gain important new protections against the potentially crippling financial implications of surprise billing. We’d agree with HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, who told the New York Times that the new rule would “[take] patients out of the middle of the food fight,” and provide “a clear road map on how you can resolve that food fight between the provider and the insurer.” It’s about time. 

Still unresolved: the high cost of out-of-network ambulance services, left out of the No Surprises Act altogether. Let’s hope Congress circles back to address that issue soon.

Industry pushes for more time before surprise billing ban enforced

As the healthcare industry gears up to fall under the requirements of the No Surprises Act that bans balance billing, hospitals and insurers said they need more time and information to abide by the requirements.

Payers are asking for a safe harbor until 2023 calling the Jan. 1 start day is too soon for plans to determine payment amounts to out-of-network providers and as it seeks clarification on the resolution process.

Safety net hospitals represented by America’s Essential Hospitals want implementation to be delayed until six months after the public health emergency for COVID-19 ends, saying staff and resources are spread too thin dealing with the pandemic and especially the spread of the delta variant.

HHS released the first interim final rule to implement the No Surprises Act in June — one of multiple expected to be released this year — including those from the Departments of Treasury and Labor.

A major and much-debated aspect of the law is how qualifying payment amounts — the amount paid to providers who are not in network but are providing care at an in-network facility — are calculated.

Later rules are expected to provide more detail on the key issue of how the independent dispute resolution process will be conducted.

Payers and providers both argued in their comments that without more information on that process, it is hard to prepare. 

The ERISA Industry Committee, which lobbies for large employers, said that as the resolution process is developed, deviation from QPAs “should be limited to extenuating circumstances.” That’s in direct contrast to the American Hospital Association, which requested the department not overly weigh the QPA as a factor in consideration.

When Congress debated a ban on surprise billing, whether a dispute resolution process would be used or whether rates for out-of-network providers would be based on a set rate was perhaps the most hotly contested aspect. In the end, providers got the win with the arbitration clause.

In comments on the rule, both AHA and payer lobby AHIP called for a multi-stakeholder group to advise on issues such as what provisions fall under state and federal jurisdiction and other operational challenges.

The hospital lobby requested clarification on a number of aspects of the rule, such as how good faith estimates of costs should be calculated on consent forms patients may sign to waive balance billing protections and when a provider can bill a patient if their claim is denied by the plan.

In multiple instances, the group asked the department to confirm that the initial payment should not be the QPA unless both the plan and provider agree to that circumstance.

The country’s largest hospital lobby is also concerned that the act won’t do enough to ensure network adequacy from insurers and will not institute enough oversight on plans’ compliance.

AHA said it is “deeply concerned that the existing oversight mechanisms are insufficient to monitor plan and issuer behavior and a more robust structure is needed to enforce the QPA requirements.”

The Federation of American Hospitals expressed similar concerns, particular regarding “abusive plan practices” like inappropriate claims denials and downcoding. The group urged the departments “to expand their oversight of plans and issuers to prevent and address unlawful and abusive plan practices.”

AEH, meanwhile, asked for assurances that administrative burdens like the notice and consent documentation would be fairly split with insurers.

Under the rule, the QPA is to be decided by a plan’s median in-network contracted rate for a geographic area. It must have a minimum of three contracted rates to use this method. If that is not available, the payer can use an independent claims database.

FAH, in particular, asked that the rule strengthen conflict of interest regulations for these databases and have their eligibility determined by the departments instead of the insurers themselves.

AHIP’s most immediate concern is the timeline for implementation. It asked for the good faith safe harbor request to develop QPA methodologies, create the infrastructure to transmit notice and consent forms with providers and for it to receive the forthcoming information on the arbitration process.

“Health plans and issuers have responsibility for developing work streams; updating information technology; creating forms, notices, and other communications; training employees; and other operational measures necessary to effectuate obligations” in the rule, the group wrote.

California hospital beats suit over ER fee nondisclosure

California moves end surprise ER bills after Vox's reporting - Vox

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.”

Read the full court opinion here

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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One-third of small businesses say health insurance is a top concern during COVID-19: survey

Dive Brief:

  • Small businesses are struggling to cover the high costs of healthcare for their employees after a year of COVID-19, according to a new poll sponsored by the Small Business Majority and patient advocacy group Families USA.
  • More than one in three small businesses owners said it’s a challenge getting coverage for themselves and their workers. That pain is particularly acute among Black, Asian American and Latino businesses, which have fewer resources than their White counterparts, SBMfound.
  • As a result, small businesses want policymakers to expand coverage access and lower medical costs, beyond the temporary fixes included in the sweeping $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan passed by Congress earlier this month.

Dive Insight:

Providing health insurance can be pricey for small employers, a challenge that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic and its subsequent economic downturn.

Accessing health insurance has been a major barrier over the course of COVID-19, the national survey of 500 businesses with 100 employees or fewer in November found. The poll, conducted by Lake Research Partners for SBM and Families USA, found many such businesses have had to slash benefits during the pandemic. Among small business owners that have reduced insurance benefits, 36% have trimmed their employer contribution for medical premiums and 56% switched to a plan with a lower premium.

Additionally, one in five small business owners say they plan to change or lower coverage in the next few months, while only about a quarter have been able to maintain coverage for temporarily furloughed employees.

The situation is bleaker for minority-owned small businesses. Overall, 34% say accessing health insurance has been a top barrier during COVID-19, but that figure rises to 50%, 44% and 43% for Black, Asian American and Latino business respondents, SBM, which represents some 80,000 small businesses nationwide, said.

That’s in line with past SBM polling finding non-white entrepreneurs are more likely to face temporary or permanent closure in the next few months than their white counterparts, and are also more likely to struggle with rent, mortgage or debt repayments.

Though employers expect a more stabilized business environment starting in the second quarter, many are still reeling from difficult economic circumstances last year. COVID-19 capsized normal efforts to calculate medical cost trends for 2021, complicating financial planning for the year ahead — especially for fragile small businesses.

Washington did allocate a significant amount of financial aid for small businesses last year, and the ARP includes numerous provisions including increased subsidies for health insurance premiums for two years, and extended COBRA coverage for laid off employees through September.

But respondents to this latest polling urged for more long-term support.

The most popular policy proposal was bringing down the cost of prescription drugs, with 90% of businesses saying they supported the measure and 54% saying they were in strong support. Protecting coverage for people with pre-existing conditions was also popular, with 87% of small business owners in total support and 51% strongly supporting.

Three-fourths of small business owners strongly support a public health insurance option, while 73% support expanding Medicaid eligibility in all states and 66% support letting people buy into Medicare starting at age 55.

Both a public option and lower age of eligibity for Medicare are key tenets of President Joseph Biden’s healthcare plan — though getting both through Congress is unlikely. And long-time business groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation for Independent Business hold major sway on such issues and tend to be more recalcitrant on progressive policy changes.

Still, calls have been mounting for employers, which insure more than half of the U.S., to do more to move the needle on medical costs, as price increases outpace overall inflation.

A survey of large to mid-size employers from the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions published Wednesday found at least three-fourths of employers support drug price regulation, surprise billing regulation, hospital price transparency and hospital rate regulation.

Another kind of surprise medical bills

Kaiser Health News’ latest edition of its “Bill of the Month” series features a patient who was charged a “facility fee,” which drove up what she owed to more than 10 times higher than what she’d previously paid for the same care.

Why it matters: Facility fees — which are essentially room rental fees, as KHN puts it — are becoming increasingly controversial, and patients often receive the bill without warning.

  • Hospitals aren’t required to inform patients ahead of time about facility fees.
  • Hospitals say they need the revenue to help cover the cost of providing 24/7 care.

What they’re saying: “Facility fees are designed by hospitals in particular to grab more revenue from the weakest party in health care: namely, the individual patient,” Alan Sager, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, told KHN.

  • The practice is becoming more popular as more private provider practices are bought by hospitals.
  • “It’s the same physician office it was,” said Trish Riley, executive director of the National Academy for State Health Policy. “Operating in exactly the same way, doing exactly the same services — but the hospital chooses to attach a facility fee to it.”