Preventing and fighting surprise medical billing: steps consumers should take

Thirty-two percent of insured individuals who had problems paying medical bills reported receiving care from an out-of-network provider that their insurance did not cover, while 69 percent of those individuals said they were not aware that the provider was not in their plan’s network when they received the care, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) survey published in January 2016. Betsy Imholz, special projects director and a surprise medical bill expert at Consumer Reports, noted in a January 17, 2017, article that “the problem is only growing worse as our healthcare system grows more complex and more insurance companies narrow the network of doctors they contract with or shift to insurance plans that eliminate coverage for out-of-network services.”

What is a surprise medical bill?

A medical bill that an insured individual receives from an out-of-network provider when the individual is unaware that the provider is out-of–network is referred to as a “surprise medical bill.” Out-of-network providers may charge patients whatever they choose and may bill the patient for the amounts that were not paid by the patient’s health plan, referred to as a “balance bill.”

According to a March 2017 KFF report on surprise medical bills, such bills may arise from an emergency when the individual does not have the ability to select providers. Often, emergency room (ER) physicians do not participate in the same health plan networks as the hospitals where they work. In addition, the patient may not have had the ability to choose the hospital or the ambulance provider. In situations when a patient receives planned care, such as a planned surgery from an in-network provider (for example, a hospital or ambulatory surgical center), other providers involved in the surgery may not be in the same network. In many nonemergency situations, the in-network provider rather than the patient arranges for the other providers participating in the procedure or treatment. Such providers may include anesthesiologists, radiologists, pathologists, and surgical assistants.

What consumers can do

Individuals can prevent surprise medical bills by avoiding receiving services from out-of-network providers, when possible, and fight surprise medical bills after receiving them. A Center on Health Insurance Reforms (CHIR) report identified the following steps for patients to take to prevent unexpected charges:

  • Use provider directories and other plan provided information to identify in-network providers;
  • Ask providers if they are in the patient’s health plan network;
  • After receiving a balance bill, the patient should review the plan’s explanation of benefits and notices about consumers rights;
  • Before paying a balance bill, the patient should contact the health plan and the provider to find out if the plan is willing to pay the bill and/or if the provider will accept a lesser amount; and
  • Contact the state insurance department to see if there is a remedy under  state law.

Additional tips for patients were addressed in an April 6, 2017, article in Consumer Reports written by Donna Rosato. In cases of emergency care or if ambulance service is needed, Rosato recommended the individual to ask the first responders or ER doctors to provide documentation confirming that the individual had no choice and transport by ambulance was medically necessary. She noted, however, as a preventive measure, that individuals find out, before needing to go to an ER, which nearby hospitals are in-network and which ER physicians are in-network. Then, in an emergency, if possible, the individual can request to be taken to an in-network ER. In nonemergency situations, such as a planned surgery, Rosato also suggested that individuals obtain a list from the doctor’s billing staff (and hospital) of other providers that may be part of the procedure or treatments such as an anesthesiologist, radiologist, and pathologist. Then contact the insurance plan and ask if the providers identified are in-network. If the providers are out-of-network, the individual should notify the attending physician and request providers who are in-network.

Highlight on Minnesota: Health plans’ red ink worst in a decade

Nonprofit insurers in Minnesota reported an operating loss of $687 million on nearly $25.9 billion in revenue for 2016, according to a trade group for insurers, the Minnesota Council of Health Plans. The financial results were the worst in a decade, with losses in both the state public health insurance programs and the marketplace where individuals purchase coverage for themselves.

Overall, revenue from premiums increased 4 percent over the prior year, while expenses increased 6 percent to $26.6 billion. State public programs accounted for more than half of the overall losses, followed by continued losses in the individual market. According to the report, on average, health insurers paid $763 per second for care. To pay those bills, insurers withdrew nearly $560 million from state-mandated medical reserves. The bulk of the financial losses reported did not result from the employer group and Medicare markets, which remained steady, and where most Minnesotans get health insurance.

In the individual market, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota said it lost $142 million for 2016, compared to a $265 million deficit the previous year. The decline mirrored the drop in enrollment, the insurer noted, rather than an improvement in the business. Over the last 10 years, health insurers returned a profit in seven. The numbers reported by the trade group focused solely on revenue and income from the health insurance business, as investment returns made by insurers were not counted in the numbers. Some saw hope in the overall numbers, however, noting that the market was not in a “death spiral,” as some health law critics have argued, because many insurers in 2016 saw slight improvements from the previous year.

AHCA’s Patient and Stability Fund would benefit large states, study finds

Large states and states with fewer insurers offering coverage in the individual and small group markets could receive the most money under the American Health Care Act’s (AHCA) Patient and State Stability Fund, according to a study by Avalere. The AHCA, which consists of two bills that came out of the House Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce Committees, is touted as an effort to repeal and replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-148).

Bill

Section 132 of the Ways and Means bill would add title XXII to the Social Security Act to create the Patient and State Stability Fund. The Fund would provide funding for the states and District of Columbia from 2018 through 2026 for eligible states to do any of the following:

  • provide financial assistance to high-risk individuals who do not have employer health insurance to enroll in health insurance coverage in the state’s individual market;
  • provide incentives for entities to enter into agreements with the state to help stabilize health insurance premiums in the health insurance market;
  • reduce the cost for providing coverage in the individual and small group markets;
  • promote participation in the individual and small group markets and increase available insurance options;
  • promote access to preventive services, dental care, and certain services for individuals with mental or substance abuse disorders;
  • provide payments to providers for the provision of health care services as specified by the Administrator; and
  • provide assistance to reduce out-of-pocket costs for individuals enrolled in health insurance coverage in the state.

Funding

The bill would appropriate $100 billion over 10 years to provide allocations to states. According to Avalere, the first 85 percent of the funds would be distributed based on the share of the state’s insurance claims as a percentage of the nation, so states that have more people with insurance and higher medical costs could receive more funding that states lower overall enrollment and spending.

The remaining 15 percent would be distributed to states that have seen an increase in the number of low-income uninsured from 2013 to 2015 or have fewer than three insurers offering coverage in their exchange in 2017.

Distribution among states

According to Avalere, the allocation methodology could result in states like California, Florida, and New York receiving the most money North Carolina, Arizona, Alabama, Oklahoma, and South Carolina could receive disproportionately high amounts of money due to the lack of health insurance participation on their markets in 2017.

The funding levels “vary widely” on a per capita basis compared to the state’s individual market enrollment in 2015, Avalere concluded. They range from $1,830 in the District of Columbia to $220 in Montana.

Senate hearing on individual market goes off-track fast, gets partisan

A Senate committee hearing on how to stabilize the individual health insurance market quickly devolved into a platform to make partisan comments and score political points regarding the proposed repeal and replacement of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-148). This occurred despite the efforts of the committee chairman to focus the committee on a transition plan for the individual market and the statements of the committee witnesses, which were non-partisan and conciliatory.

The Chairman’s remarks. In his introductory remarks, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, expressed his hope that the committee could put aside the partisan talking points and come together to find solutions to ensure the viability of the individual health insurance market during the transition from the ACA. The individual mandate to obtain health insurance was created by section 1510 of the ACA.

Alexander noted that the individual market makes up only 6 percent (18 million beneficiaries nationwide) of the total health insurance market, with only 4 percent covered through the ACA Exchanges. He further noted that some health care plans have pulled out of the Exchanges and many individuals may have only one plan to choose from. He asked the panel and the committee to focus on three questions: (1) Is there really instability in the individual markets? (2) If so, what needs to be done? (3) By what date must it be done?

The Ranking Member’s remarks. Ranking Member Patty Murray’s (D-WA) opening statement showed that she had no intention of following Alexander’s plea for a non-partisan hearing. Instead, she began by stating that while the individual market had always been a problem, the ACA helped to solve that problem, and now the Republican’s plan to repeal the ACA without a concrete plan for replacement is creating chaos in the health care system. She also went outside the individual market focus of the hearing and claimed that Republican policies would cut Medicare and Planned Parenthood. She termed the Trump Administration efforts as “TrumpCare by sabotage” and urged the Republicans to reverse their course and stop repeal of the ACA. She concluded by sarcastically suggesting that you “can’t repair the roof while Republican Party is burning the house down.”

Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) responded to Sen. Murray’s comments with “the house may be on fire, but it was on fire before we got here.” He was also able to get one witness to concede that the individual market had already been destabilized by specific provisions of the ACA itself, including the essential health benefit requirement, special enrollment periods and extended grace periods that have allowed individuals to game the system, medical loss ratios, and having premiums for young people set higher than the penalties for not having coverage.

The witnesses. The committee witnesses included Julie Mix McPeak, Comissioner of the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance; Marilyn Tavenner, former CMS Administrator and current President and Chief Executive Officer of America’s Health Insurance Plans; Janet Trautwein, Chief Executive Officer of the National Association of Health Underwriters; and Steve Beshear former Democrat Governor of Kentucky from 2007 to 2015.

All of the witnesses were in agreement that the individual health insurance market does not react well to the uncertainty that currently exists. And three of the four witness agreed that the number of plans available are dropping and the premiums are rising.

When asked by Alexander for a deadline for when Congress must act, the witness stated by the end of March at the latest. This, they stated, was because rates must be set by mid-July and plans approved by the various states by August.

McPeak. In her statement, McPeak testified that, “In short, Tennessee’s ACA individual market experience since 2014 has meant fewer marketplace carriers for Tennessee consumers, less competition across the state, and higher priced premiums for available products. In addition, we have seen existing FFM carriers move towards narrower networks, further limiting consumers’ access to providers of their choosing.”

She stated that there are only three ACA carriers in Tennessee, with only one choice in 73 of the 85 counties. In addition, she stated that premium rate increases have ranged from 42 to 62 percent in her state. She did not call for a delay in the repeal of the ACA, but, instead, asked Congress to allow states to tailor health care plans to fit their needs and urged an open and transparent repeal and replace process so that carriers can prepare adequately.

Tavenner. In her statement, Tavenner admitted that parts of the ACA have not worked well. She stressed that certainty in the individual market is essential. She recommended: (1) continuing to provide subsidies such as the advanced premium tax credits and cost-sharing reduction payments in their entirety; and (2) making full federal reinsurance payments for 2016, as this funding is important for plans to effectively cover the needs of high-need patients, including those with chronic conditions.

Tavenner also recommended several policies to help promote a more stable and workable transition for consumers and families, including:

  • Using premium tax credits to encourage younger people to get coverage.
  • Creating incentives for people to keep their coverage through the transition.
  • Beginning in 2017, establish a federally funded, transitional risk pool program would offset some of the costs of serving patients who have the most complex health conditions and need the most care.
  • Eliminating taxes and fees such as the health insurance tax, which will reduce premiums and promote affordability.
  • Effectively verifying the eligibility of those signing up for coverage during special enrollment periods, and shortening the 3-month grace period for non-payment of premiums so that it is better aligned with state laws and regulations (e.g. 30-day period).
  • Protecting people who are eligible for public programs from being inappropriately steered into the commercial insurance market.

Trautwein. Trautwein called for immediate stabilization of the individual market. She attributed the higher cost of individual plans to rules allowing healthy individuals to drop in and out of plans without consequences and allowing special enrollment periods without requiring upfront documentation and allowing inappropriate coaching by enrollers. She recommended:

  • Requiring guaranteed access to individual coverage and with state-level financial backstops for catastrophic risks.
  • Giving pre-existing condition credit for prior individual market coverage to ensure true heath insurance portability from one individual market policy to another.
  • Standardizing state requirements regarding the consideration of pre-existing conditions.
  • Improving federal group-to-individual coverage portability provisions so that people can transition directly from employer coverage to individual coverage without hurdles.
  • Stabilizing individual market rates by requiring more standardization as to how individual market carriers determine pricing.
  • Increasing consumer protections regarding individual market coverage rescissions.
  • Making it easier for employers to help people purchase individual health insurance.
  • Providing federal financial assistance to keep individual health insurance coverage affordable, including enhanced deductibility, subsidies for low-income individuals, and federal financial support for qualified state financial backstop programs.
  • Ensuring that all Americans have health insurance coverage.
  • Allowing state implementation of enhanced consumer protections with a federal fallback enforcement mechanism.

Beshear. In his statement, Beshear gushed about the ACA and what it did to increase the number of people with health coverage in Kentucky. He claimed that his creation of a state exchange and the expansion of Medicaid added 500,000 to the insured roles in Kentucky. He stated that he does not view the ACA as a partisan issue, but rather a tool to address health insurance problems. He believes that the ACA works and that Congress’ challenge is to make it work better.