State Efforts to Protect Consumers from Balance Billing

Image result for balance billing

Health insurance rates for working-age Americans have improved over the past decade. But not everyone with health insurance today has adequate financial protection. About one-fourth of insured Americans are underinsured because they have significant coverage gaps or high out-of-pocket costs. And all consumers are vulnerable to surprise medical bills, or balance bills for out-of-network care. These balance bills arise when insurance covers out-of-network care, but the provider bills the consumer for amounts beyond what the insurer pays and beyond cost-sharing, as well as in situations where out-of-network care is not normally covered but the selection of provider is outside the consumer’s control.

Consumers are most likely to receive surprise medical bills from health providers outside their insurance plan’s network after receiving emergency care or medical procedures at in-network facilities. In the latter cases, for example, consumers may select a surgeon and facility in network, but discover that other providers, such as an anesthesiologist or surgical assistant, are out of network. These unexpected medical bills are a major concern for Americans, with two-thirds saying they are “very worried” or “somewhat worried” that they or a family member will receive a surprise bill. In fact, these bills are the most-cited concern related to health care costs and other household expenses.

While employers and insurers may voluntarily protect employees or enrollees from some types of balance billing, no federal law regulates charges submitted by out-of-network providers. States can help protect enrollees from unexpected balance bills. However, state protections are limited by federal law (ERISA), which exempts self-insured employer-sponsored plans, covering 61 percent of privately insured employees, from state regulation.

Despite Recent State Activity, Consumers in Most States Are Not Protected from Balance Billing

We conducted a study, published in June 2017, that found that 21 states had laws offering consumers at least some protections in a balance billing situation. But only six of those states — California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, and New York — had laws meeting our standard for “comprehensive” protections.

Critical elements of state laws that offer “comprehensive” protections against balance billing:

  • Extend protections to both emergency department and in-network hospital settings
  • Apply laws to all types of insurance, including both HMOs and PPOs
  • Protect consumers both by holding them harmless from extra provider charges — meaning they are not responsible for the charges — and prohibiting providers from balance billing, and
  • Adopt an adequate payment standard — a rule to determine how much the insurer pays the provider — or a dispute-resolution process to resolve payment disputes between providers and insurers.

In 2017 and 2018, states continued taking steps to protect consumers. Four states — Arizona, Maine, Minnesota, and Oregon — created balance-billing consumer protections for the first time, and two states — New Hampshire and New Jersey — substantially expanded existing protections. We now classify New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Oregon as states offering comprehensive protections against balance billing. As of December 2018, 25 states have laws offering some balance-billing protection to their residents, and nine of them offer comprehensive protections.

New Jersey has met our criteria for comprehensive protection by creating a strong dispute-resolution process to establish a payment amount for the out-of-network service. Other states have recently acted to protect consumers from balance billing in a more limited way that does not meet our criteria. For example, Missouri’s protections against balance billing apply only if the provider and insurer voluntarily agree to participate in the process.

Interest in a Federal Solution to Balance Billing

At the same time, interest has grown in federal measures, in part, because only federal legislation can protect those in self-funded insurance plans that are exempt from state regulation. During the 115th Congress, proposals were released by Senator Bill Cassidy (R–La.)Senator Maggie Hassan (D–N.H.)Representative Lloyd Doggett (D–Texas), and Representative Michelle Lujan Grisham (D–N.M.). The Cassidy proposal has bipartisan support, with three Democrats and two other Republicans as cosponsors.

Federal approaches vary along some of the same lines as state laws. For example, the Hassan bill relies most heavily on a dispute-resolution approach. By contrast, the Cassidy proposal relies on a payment standard that is the greater of a) the median in-network rate paid by the insurer or b) 125 percent of the average allowed amount across payers. Several federal proposals make protections contingent on failure of providers to notify the consumer that they could be billed by an out-of-network provider. States that have enacted protections have mostly viewed such contingent protections as an insufficient means of protecting consumers. Federal proposals also vary in the degree to which they allow a state role in implementing protections.

Some federal proposals, like some state laws, have potential gaps. For example, some address balance bills only from hospital-based physicians such as anesthesiologists and radiologists. Also, state laws and federal proposals mostly do not address ground or air emergency transport providers.

Looking Forward

The bipartisan interest in the surprise billing issue offers the potential for federal action in the new Congress. States are frustrated by their inability to address all insurance plans. And states without laws have often faced opposition from stakeholder groups, even when there is a consensus around protecting consumers. A federal solution could offer a more comprehensive approach, while giving states appropriate flexibility to seek an approach fitting their particular market environments.






As Hospitals Post Sticker Prices Online, Most Patients Will Remain Befuddled

As of Jan. 1, in the name of transparency, the Trump administration required that all hospitals post their list prices online. But what is popping up on medical center websites is a dog’s breakfast of medical codes, abbreviations and dollar signs — in little discernible order — that may initially serve to confuse more than illuminate.

Anyone who has ever tried to find out in advance how much a hospital test, procedure or stay will cost knows the frustration: “Nope, can’t tell you” or “It depends” are common replies from insurers and medical centers.

While more information is always welcome, the new data will fall short of providing most consumers with usable insight.

That’s because the price lists displayed this week, called chargemasters, are massive compendiums of the prices set by each hospital for every service or drug a patient might encounter. To figure out what, for example, a trip to the emergency room might cost, a patient would have to locate and piece together the price for each component of their visit — the particular blood tests, the particular medicines dispensed, the facility fee and the physician’s charge, and more.

“I don’t think it’s very helpful,” said Gerard Anderson, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Hospital Finance and Management. “There are about 30,000 different items on a chargemaster file. As a patient, you don’t know which ones you will use.”

And there’s this: Other than the uninsured and people who are out-of-network, few actually pay full charges.

The requirement to post charges online in a machine-readable format, such as a Microsoft Excel file, came in a 2018 guidance from the Trump administration that builds on rules in the Affordable Care Act. Hospitals have some leeway in deciding how to present the information — and currently there is no penalty for failing to post.

“This is a small step” toward price transparency amid other ongoing efforts, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma said in a speech in July.

But finding the chargemaster information on a hospital’s website takes diligence. Patients can try typing the hospital’s name into a search engine, along with the keywords “billing” or “chargemaster.” That might produce a link.

Even when consumers do locate the lists, they might be stymied by seemingly incomprehensible abbreviations.

The University of California San Francisco Medical Center’s chargemaster, for example, includes a $378 charge for “Arthrocentesis Aspir&/Inj Small Jt/Bursa w/o Us,” which is basically draining fluid from the knee.

At Sentara in Hampton Roads, Va., there’s a $307 charge for something described as a LAY CLOS HND/FT=<2.5CM. What? Turns out that is the charge for a small suture in surgery.

Which services, treatments, drugs or procedures a patient will face in a hospital stay is often unknowable. And the charge listed is just one component of a total bill. Put simply, an MRI scan of the abdomen has related costs, such as the charge for the radiologist who reads the exam.

Even something as seemingly straightforward as an uncomplicated childbirth can’t easily be calculated by looking at the list.

Comparisons between hospitals for the same care can also be difficult.

An uncomplicated vaginal delivery charge at the Cleveland Clinic’s main campus is $3,466.

Looking for that same information on the Minnesota Mayo Clinic’s online chargemaster page shows two listings, one for $3,030, described as “labor and delivery level 1 short” and the other for $5,236, described as “labor and delivery level 2 long.” But, what’s a short labor? What’s a long one? How is a patient who didn’t go to med school supposed to know the difference?

Also, those are just the charges for the actual delivery. There are also per-day room charges for mom and the newborn, not to mention additional charges for medications, physicians and other treatments.

To get at the total estimated charge, California requires hospitals to report charges for a select number of such “bundles” of care, called “diagnosis-related groups,” or DRGs, in Medicare jargon.

At the University of California-San Francisco’s hospital, for example, there are two chargemaster line items for vaginal childbirth: One is $5,497 and the other is $12,632. But there’s no indication how these differ. Consumers might then turn to the “bundled” cost based on those DRGs, where the ancillary costs are included. That lists the total charge for an uncomplicated childbirth at an astounding $53,184.

A UCSF spokeswoman said no officials were available to comment on this figure.

Though chargemaster rates are quite different from the lower, negotiated rates that insurers pay, they do become the basis for what patients pay who are without insurance or who are treated at hospitals outside their insurer’s network. Out-of-network patients are often surprised when they get what are called “balance bills” for the difference between what their insurer pays toward their care and those full charges.

Still, even knowing chargemaster rates “would be entirely unhelpful” in fighting a high balance bill, said Barak Richman, a law professor at Duke University who has written extensively about balance bills and hospital charges.

“Chargemasters are enormous spreadsheets with incredibly complicated codes that no one short of a billing expert would be able to make sense of,” he said.

Nevertheless, some experts say that merely making the charges public shines a light on the often very high — and widely varying — prices set by facilities.

Even if those charges are only “what hospitals would like to receive,” posting them publicly could make hospitals “totally embarrassed by the prices,” said Anderson at Hopkins.

Billing expert George Nation, a finance professor at Lehigh University, said that rather than posting chargemaster lists, hospitals should be required to provide the average prices they accept from insurers. Hospitals generally would oppose that, saying negotiated rates are a trade secret.

It’s unclear that the lists will have much impact. “It’s been the norm here in California for over a decade,” said Jan Emerson-Shea, vice president of external affairs for the California Hospital Association. Even so, “from a practical standpoint, I’m not sure how useful this information is,” she said. “What an individual pays to [the] hospital is going to be based on what their insurer covers.”

That could include such things as the annual deductible, whether the facility or physicians involved in the care are in-network and other details.

“The hospital piece is just a small piece,” said Ariel Levin, senior associate director for state issues at the American Hospital Association.

Still, “the biggest concern is it falls short of that end goal because it really doesn’t help consumers understand what they are going to be liable for,” she said.





20 things to know about balance billing

Medicine and Dollars

As payers and providers wage war over reimbursement rates for medical services, patients have been increasingly strapped with unanticipated healthcare bills that can have detrimental financial effects.

The practice of balance billing refers to a physician’s ability to bill the patient for an outstanding balance after the insurance company submits its portion of the bill. Out-of-network physicians, not bound by contractual, in-network rate agreements, have the ability to bill patients for the entire remaining balance.

Balance billing may occur when a patient receives a bill for an episode of care previously believed to be in-network and therefore covered by the insurance company, or when an insurance company contributes less money for a medical service than a patient expected.

In recent years, the rise in out-of-network payer-provider reimbursement clashes have spawned a growing number of balance billing cases. Last October, Aetna discouraged members from seeking emergency medical care at in-network Allegheny Health Network hospitals in Pittsburgh after out-of-network emergency physicians began ‘aggressively’ balance billing policy holders. In a more drastic move, UnitedHealthcare announced last year the insurer would no longer cover medical bills for members who unknowingly received out-of-network treatment by physicians at in-network hospitals.

Patients, caught in the financial crosshairs, often feel powerless to negotiate costs. Consumer advocacy groups and federal and state legislators are turning their attention to balance billing practices this year with renewed vigor, forcing payers and providers to find other ways to settle financial disagreements.

Unexpected medical bills can cost American consumers thousands

Who is In Network