Strike balance in proposals to modify private physician contracts, KFF warns

Policy makers considering proposals to ease Medicare private contracting rules should strike a balance between ensuring doctors and practitioners receive fair payment and helping beneficiaries face predictable and affordable medical care, a Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) issue brief concluded. While proponents of such proposals may tout increased physician autonomy, easing private contracting rules could lead to “an unraveling of financial protections” currently in place.

Options for charging Medicare patients

Currently, physicians and practitioners have three options for charging patients in traditional Medicare—by registering as a participating provider, a nonparticipating provider, or an opt-out provider who privately contracts with Medicare patients. Participating providers (see Social Security Act (SSA) Sec. 1842(h)(1)) agree to accept the Medicare physician fee schedule amount as payment in full for all Medicare services, and patients are liable for a 20 percent coinsurance. Nonparticipating physicians may choose, on a service-by-service basis, to charge Medicare beneficiaries higher fees, up to a limit of 115 percent of the fee schedule amount (see SSA Sec. 1848(g)).

Opt-out providers with private contracts may charge Medicare patients any fee they feel is appropriate, as agreed upon in the contract, and Medicare does not cover or pay for such services (see SSA Sec. 1802(b)). Less than 1 percent of physicians in clinical practice chose to opt out of Medicare in 2016.

Patient protections

Before providing services, physicians must inform a beneficiary in writing that they opted out of Medicare (see 42 C.F.R. Sec. 405.415). The physician is prohibited from entering into a private contract when the beneficiary needs emergency or urgent care. Also, a physician must opt out of Medicare for all of his or her Medicare patients and for all services provided to them. A two-year opt-out period is automatically extended for two-year periods.

Proposals to change Medicare private contracting

The issue brief described various proposals to modify private contracting in Medicare, including legislation introduced by Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga): (1) allowing physicians to contract more selectively, on a patient-by-patient or service-by-service basis; (2) allowing patients and physicians to seek Medicare reimbursement for an amount that Medicare would normally pay under the physician fee schedule; and (3) allowing patients and physicians to seek reimbursement from supplemental insurance, such as Medigap policies and employee-sponsored retiree coverage.

KFF noted the arguments in favor of these proposals. First, lifting restrictions on private contracting would allow physicians to receive higher payment for services, which could offer practitioners greater autonomy. Second, the proposals could increase the number of physicians willing to accept Medicare patients because they could charge higher fees to some Medicare patients. Third, the proposals could reduce beneficiary out-of-pocket costs because beneficiaries entering into private contracts would be able to seek Medicare reimbursement for part of the physician’s bill.

KFF raised concerns, however. For example, liberalizing private contracting rules could increase costs for beneficiaries. In addition, some beneficiaries could lose access to affordable services, particularly for less common physician specialties.