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I Hate Surprises!

On December 22, 2020

By: Ron E. Peck

As a member of the health benefits community, I – like many of you – have heard about the proposed “No Surprises Act.”  Many representatives of our health insurance and benefits community have reached out to me asking whether this “new law” will make balance billing “illegal,” and thus enable plans to leave their networks behind and pay claims solely based upon a Reference Based Pricing (“RBP”) methodology.

Before we dive into what the No Surprises Act is (and isn’t), let’s first – as of the time this missive is being drafted – recognize that it is presently “a bipartisan, bicameral deal in principle.”1   The “Committee leaders” are on record as having said that they “… look forward to continuing to work together to finalize and attach this important new patient protection to the end-of-year funding package,” and that they are “… hopeful this legislation will be signed into law…”  Despite Congress’ vote to pass the bill, which includes the No Surprises Act, unless and until it is signed into law by the President, it isn’t a law of the land (yet).

A wise person plans for anything and everything, however, so let’s proceed under the assumption that this “deal” will in fact become law.  The question (then) is whether, as mentioned above, the No Surprises Act outlaws balance billing.  The answer is no; not even close.

The name of the proposed law is literally the no “surprises” act, and the above mentioned Committee leaders specifically state that, “Patients should not be penalized with these outrageous bills simply because they were rushed to an out-of-network hospital or unknowingly treated by an out-of-network provider at an in-network facility.”  

This proposal relates solely to “surprise” balance bills.  

One trend, seen from both government and media, is to confuse the term “balance billing” with the more specific term, “surprise” balance billing.  In a nutshell, every brown squirrel is a squirrel, but not every squirrel is a brown squirrel.  Similarly, every surprise balance bill is a balance bill, but not every balance bill is a surprise balance bill.  
 
A surprise balance bill is an amount submitted to a patient for payment that represents the difference between what a health plan paid, and the amount a provider charged for out of network (“OON”) services, provided in response to an emergency, where the patient didn’t choose the provider (nor did they have the ability to choose).  Alternatively, a surprise balance bill is an amount submitted to a patient for payment that represents the difference between what a health plan paid, and the amount an OON provider charged when the patient treated at an “in network” (“IN”) facility, but a specific healthcare professional at the facility – that provided services to the patient – is independently OON.
 
When a plan pays a usual and customary or “RBP” rate (often a percent of Medicare, or some other objective pricing metric) to a non-contracted provider, and the provider subsequently seeks payment from the patient of an amount that is in excess of the maximum allowable amount paid by the plan, this is balance billing.  If the scenario doesn’t fit into the one of the two definitions explained above, then that balance bill is not a surprise balance bill, and – for the time being – the “No Surprises Act” is moot.  

Further complicating the situation, most RBP plans do not utilize any network at all.  This in turn nullifies one, if not both, of the scenarios that give rise to a “surprise” balance bill.  

Specifically, when there is no network, a patient cannot find themselves in a situation where they visit an IN facility, only to have an OON provider provide services.  This is because there are no IN facilities at all.

Further, depending upon how lawmakers interpret the interplay between the proposed rules and emergency services, it may be that an RBP plan will not benefit from protections afforded to patients in response to “emergency” situations either.  Recall that the rule, and definition of surprise balance billing, envisions a scenario where a patient is whisked away to an OON provider in an emergency situation.  The theory is that the patient “would have chosen” an IN provider had they had the chance.  Yet, with an RBP plan that has no network at all, the patient could not have chosen an IN facility – emergency or not.  In other words, with an RBP plan that has no network at all, the fact that the need was urgent (an emergency) has no impact on whether the patient is treated at an OON facility.

Benefit plans that do utilize networks should pay close attention because this proposal will impact them.  Additionally, despite the above, even RBP plans and plans that don’t use a network should also pay attention – not because the proposal will impact them (it won’t), but because the way with which the rule addresses surprise balance bills may be a glimpse into the future, and a hint as to how lawmakers would seek to deal with all balance bills – not just surprise balance bills.

With this in mind, one item that should cause payers to tremble is the fact that, in direct opposition to the philosophy underpinning RBP, the “No Surprise Act” does not reference any objective payment standard.  In other words, there is no universally agreed upon standard the parties can use in determining a fair payment.

The initial hope is that payers and providers will try to resolve payment disputes on their own.  This initial “step” in the process, heralded as a novel step forward, does nothing more than document what most payers are already trying to do and have been trying to do for some time.  When a patient is balance billed, a benefit plan rarely ignores their plight, and already seeks to resolve the matter with the provider – despite the plan not “technically” having an obligation to pay anything more.

Herein lies my concern – when the provider has a right to pursue payment from a patient (balance bill), and a payer has a right to cap what they will pay, both parties have something the other wants.  The provider wants to be paid promptly, by the plan (whose pockets are far deeper than the patient’s).  The provider recognizes that they aren’t guaranteed payment from the patient, and thus they are incentivized to work with the plan – applying the old adage that “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”  The plan, meanwhile, wants to protect their plan member from balance billing.  Thus, even though they have paid all they are required to pay, the plan is compelled to pay more to protect the plan member.  As a result, as mentioned above, both parties have something the other wants, and have a reason to negotiate in good faith.

In a new world, where the plan will be required to pay more – either a smaller amount proposed by the plan, a larger amount proposed by the provider, or some negotiated amount in between – the “threat” of the plan walking away without paying anything additional (a right the plan presently has) is stripped away, giving the provider more negotiation power and the plan less power than is presently the case.  For this reason, the proposed rule hurts rather than helps negotiation efforts.

How could this be allowed to happen?  As one reviews the proposed rule, one realizes that certain assumptions are in play.  First, that benefit plans universally underpay claims when they are OON.  Second, that benefit plans will never negotiate or pay anything additional when a participant is balance billed.  As such, a law is required that will scrutinize what the plan paid and will force the plan to pay more.

For plans that already pay an objectively fair amount for OON claims, and already engage in good faith negotiations to protect patients from balance bills, these assumptions should be offensive, and the resultant rule should horrify.

Further worrisome is the so-called arbitration that ensues if a negotiation fails.  The style of arbitration is “baseball arbitration;” a process where the arbiter is stripped of their power to steer the parties toward a middle ground and is instead forced to pick one of two amounts – one proposed by each party.  As a result, benefit plans are cautioned against offering a too-small amount (including nothing additional), even if it seems fair to them, for fear of offending the arbiter and losing before they even begin.  Of course, the counterpoint to that is that one does not negotiate against themselves.  Many will not want to offer a too high amount, for fear that they will call their original payment (and logic behind the payment) into question, as well as embolden providers to increase their rates in response.

This, then, leads to another concern.  If payers will be forced to pay “something” additional, why should providers avoid increasing their rates?  

All involved in this proposal explicitly agree that this process is more favorable to providers.  It’s why they supposedly added so-called “guardrails” to help ensure that the arbitration process is not abused.  

First, payers and providers must engage in 30 days of negotiations, prior to requesting arbitration within 48 hours of the final day’s passage.  This supposed guardrail only benefits providers.  Presently, “pre-rule,” plans that have paid the maximum amount according to their controlling document seek only to negotiate to protect their plan member from balance billing.  They, until now, gained nothing from paying more.  Providers, on the other hand, are seeking financial gain.  Prior to this rule, the threat that the plan could walk away, and the provider could be forced to pursue the patient – and likely get nothing additional – was an incentive to negotiate in good faith.  Now, with the arbitration “light” shining at the end of the 30 day “tunnel,” providers will demand 100% of billed charges, refuse to negotiate, and simply await arbitration – knowing that they will either be rewarded with between a little more and a lot more payment from the plan.  At best, they can assert a right to 100% of billed charges and win that amount in arbitration.  At worst, they will get an amount the plan proposes (which is still more than the plan’s original payment – and thus more than the provider could potentially expect to get – should negotiations fail – pre-rule change).  In other words, in a world where payers will be forced to pay more, and providers are not punished for charging excessive amounts, there is no downside to charging more, ignoring negotiations, and waiting for arbitration.

A rule that some say will prevent the overuse of the arbitration process is that the losing party will be responsible for paying the administrative costs of arbitration.   Of course, those in our industry recognize that – for the reasons explained above – even if the provider loses (and is forced to pay the costs of arbitration) the additional payment from the plan of the lesser amount presented by the plan plus the already marked up rates initially paid by the plan, will outweigh the occasional loss and corresponding administrative costs.  

Arbitrators, meanwhile, have the flexibility to consider a range of factors, but unfortunately – none of those factors are objective.  They will be forced to limit their examination to only factors raised by the parties, and – significantly – not what the provider usually accepts from other payers.  Additionally, the arbitrator is not supposed to review the billed charges (the chargemaster rate), but – assuming the provider is seeking payment of their charges in full via arbitration – that limitation is irrelevant.

Optional factors that an arbitrator could consider include, among others, the level of training or experience of the provider or facility, quality and outcomes measurements of the provider or facility, market share held by the out-of-network health care provider or facility, or by the plan in the geographic region, patient acuity and complexity of services provided, and teaching status, case mix, and scope of services of the facility.  We question whether the payer will have an opportunity to challenge these metrics, or – as it appears to be presented – whether this is simply an open invitation for the provider to justify their demands.

Additional factors that the arbitrator may consider, and which are both beneficial to payers as well as uniquely worrisome, are any good faith efforts by the provider to join the plan’s network, past contracted rates, and the median in-network rate paid by the plan.  

On the positive side, this will hopefully prevent the billed charges from being deemed the “starting point” or misrepresented as what is “usually paid” by benefit plans.  Generally speaking, States that have implemented regulations limiting surprise balance bills that take such median rates into consideration generally see smaller amounts being paid than in States that do not take median rates into consideration.

On the flip side, knowing this information may be used against them in the future, will providers seek to contract for more with networks, to avoid creating a lower floor should they be forced to fight for OON payments at a later date?  As for plans that do not even have a network, such as an RBP plan, how will these metrics apply to them?

This focus on networks, as well as in and out of network status, is a red herring.  No payer should be forced to pay an abusive amount because they did or didn’t lock themselves into a contract at some earlier date, or with someone else.  Each service provided by a provider should entitle that provider to fair compensation.  If, four years prior, I agreed to pay $100,000 for an automobile that had a sticker price of $30,000, that mistake should not doom me to a lifetime of overpayments.  If I paid $100,000 for a car worth $30,000, my wife shouldn’t be forced to do the same when she is purchasing a car.  We should be allowed to pay a fair price for the service we are purchasing – in a vacuum and based solely on the value of that service, and that service alone.

“As we have stated many times before, the AMA strongly supports protecting patients from the financial impact of unanticipated medical bills that arise when patients reasonably believe that the care they received would be covered by their health insurer, but it was not because their insurer did not have an adequate network of contracted physicians to meet their needs,” AMA Executive Vice President and CEO James L. Madara, MD, wrote in a letter to congressional leaders.2

This statement from the American Medical Association’s leadership exposes two worrisome philosophies.  First, that it is reasonable and appropriate to expect benefit plans to agree, via contract, to pay a provider whatever that provider wants – regardless of how excessive or abusive those prices may be.  Second, that benefit plans should be forced to create and expand networks until they have no bargaining power and thus cannot exercise any cost controls whatsoever.  I would ask Mr. Madara what he believes constitutes an “adequate” network.  25% of providers?  50%?  100% of providers?  As that network grows, in-network status loses its exclusivity, and steerage of plan participants is spread, thinning the number of patients visiting each provider and lessening the value of in-network status for the providers.  This in turn justifies the providers demanding more payment, and lesser discounts.  

This philosophy, shared by the AMA and providers alike, exposes a baseline assumption that has become prevalent in our nation, and serves as a foundation for a flawed system.  No other type of insurance is “forced” to contract with providers.  Whether it be homeowner’s insurance, auto insurance, or any other form of insurance – insurance pays the fair value of the loss, and the objectively reasonable cost of repair or replacement.  Yet, here we see the American Medical Association’s leadership stating that benefit plans should be punished for not contracting with providers, before a service is even provided, and failing to agree to pay whatever the provider chooses to charge when the time comes.  Imagine if your auto insurance carrier was forced to contract with every auto manufacturer, agreeing to pay whatever the car maker charges at the time an insured needs a new car, without knowing what those prices will look like at the time the contract is signed.  Imagine how automobile manufacturers could and would abuse that one-sided deal, and what that would subsequently do to your premiums.  

The bottom line?  With this new rule, providers are not punished for failing to contract with payers.  Payers are punished for not contracting with providers.  This puts all of the negotiation power in the hands of the provider.  They know they can leave the “networking table” without a deal and collect their lump of flesh later.  The payer, however, now is desperate to get a contract signed – and will sign a deal, no matter how abusive – to avoid the punishments they will suffer when they dare to allow a provider to be OON.

Before this review can be concluded, it is important to recognize that this assessment has been mostly negative.  Hopefully you will forgive the author his gloomy tone.  Many people see that surprise balance billing is being identified as an issue – and that, in and of itself, is a good thing.  Unfortunately, the approach presented by the No Surprises Act minimizes the importance of examining objective metrics, is over reliant upon networks, and ignores amounts providers accept as “payment in full” from other payers – including Medicare and Medicaid, as well as actual cost to charge ratios.  Rather than drill down to the question of what constitutes “fair” compensation, the process will instead ask what constitutes the “most common” compensation.   Looking at the current state of the healthcare industry, one would be justified in expressing concern over future dependence upon past “averages.”  

Hopefully arbitration won’t take place in a vacuum, despite the analysis above.  Furthermore, there are other reasons for optimism.  Much of the proposal depends upon future rulemaking.  There is an opportunity to further define how the rule will be applied through the regulatory process.  Stakeholders are encouraged to analyze the rule, contemplate how it will impact them, and propose solutions to shift the end result to a more equitable conclusion.  This is not the end, but rather a foot in the door.  

Consider also the inclusion of air ambulance claims.  For too long this subset of healthcare has been allowed to operate without limitation and gotten away with unfettered billing practices.  By being included in this proposal, we are turning the corner and taking one step in the right direction.

Lastly, while the rule isn’t perfect, it does also require providers to exercise a new level of transparency – notifying patients when they may be treated by an out of network provider, and requiring the use of a waiver that is (hopefully) more robust than the traditional intake forms signed by patients today.

Thus, in closing, while the No Surprises Act is far from perfect, there exists an opportunity to adjust it through the regulatory process and it shines a light on some issues that have been hidden for too long.

1. https://www.help.senate.gov/chair/newsroom/press/congressional-committee-leaders-announce-surprise-billing-agreement

2. https://www.ama-assn.org/delivering-care/patient-support-advocacy/proposed-no-surprises-act-favors-commercial-health-plans

Simple Negotiations Made Not-So-Simple

On July 23, 2020

By: Jon Jablon, Esq.

Case-by-case individualized negotiations are simple, and that simplicity is part of what makes vendors who perform these type of negotiations so attractive. This is not to say that it’s easy to secure great deals – but from a payor’s perspective, the process is generally fairly simple: you send a claim to the vendor; the vendor works its magic with the provider; the vendor sends the claim back to you with a negotiated rate attached to it and often a note about when it needs to be paid. No hassle, no fuss.

A small percent of the time, though, it gets more complicated. I don’t mean if a claim can’t be negotiated; I mean a situation in which there is a complex contractual dilemma associated with the negotiation.

For instance, we recently dealt with a situation where a provider was extremely slow to respond to our offers. We didn’t receive a refusal to negotiate; on the contrary, the provider’s billing agent was willing to work with us, but didn’t get back to us in a timely manner due to either internal bureaucracy or possibly just not being great at his job. Ultimately, what happened was that our client hit its 30-day payment mark, and the plan’s broker was adamant that the group not risk a late payment to a provider due to the provider’s own slowness to respond. So, the plan paid the claim at its allowable amount (somewhat higher than the desired negotiated rate) – but then after that payment was made, the provider finally responded to our last offer with a counteroffer of its own. The provider didn’t yet realize that it had already been paid a higher amount than the counteroffer it made to us – likely ascribed to either poor communication within the provider’s systems or office, or, again, possibly just this person not being great at his job.

The first thing we did was not to let the provider know that payment was already made, but to say, unequivocally, in writing, that we accept this offer. That was an important first step, since any time after the offer is made, it can be revoked for any reason (or for no reason) – but once we accept it, it can no longer be revoked. We wanted to make sure the agent didn’t have the chance to revoke the offer the second we told him that the plan had already paid.

After we issued a written acceptance to the written offer, we then informed the billing agent that the payment had already gone out, and we provided the calculations for how much the provider should refund to us from that payment – or, alternatively, the payor could cancel the check and write a new one. We gave them the choice. The billing agent, however, was not happy. He argued that when payment was made by the plan, the negotiation was canceled, and the fact that he made an offer to us after payment means that his offer wasn’t valid. Our legal team forcefully pointed out that there’s no basis in the law for that, and parties are free to negotiate even after payment has been made. The previous tendering of payment has absolutely no bearing on the right to negotiate; it simply creates an overpayment, which is the situation we were facing then. The provider tried to argue that its own offer was invalid. What a joke!

Fast forward two weeks, and we finally got the provider to accept the negotiated rate, which is ironic, because it was the provider’s own offer. We were confident that it would ultimately have this conclusion, but that didn’t make it any easier to stomach the provider’s bad attitude.

The moral of this story is that even something as simple as a plain old claim negotiation can still develop certain unexpected hiccups. Unfortunately, that is sometimes the case with all sorts of daily transactions! If you are facing any issues with negotiations, or other processes that should be simple but have become unexpectedly complex, The Phia Group is here to assist. Feel free to contact attorney Tim Callender at tcallender@phiagroup.com or 781-535-5631, and we’ll do whatever we can to help improve your self-funding experience.

Did HHS Just Ban All Surprise Billing During The COVID-19 Pandemic?

On April 29, 2020

Andrew Silverio, Esq.

Apologies for the attention-grabbing headline, but no, as good as that would be for payers, it didn’t.  However, Kaiser Health News recently ran a story, which was also picked up by NPR, speculating that this is precisely what had occurred. The article, which ran on April 17, 2020, discussed the terms and conditions placed on providers who receive funds from the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Relief Fund under Public Law 116-136, one of which states that “… for all care for a presumptive or actual case of COVID-19, Recipient certifies that it will not seek to collect from the patient out-of-pocket expenses in an amount greater than what the patient would have otherwise been required to pay if the care had been provided by an in-network Recipient.”

For its expansive reading of this seemingly limited prohibition on balance-billing, KHN points to a statement on an explanatory HHS website (the article links to https://www.hhs.gov/provider-relief/index.html) stating that “HHS broadly views every patient as a possible case of COVID-19.”  The rationale then, is that if providers can’t balance bill COVID-19 patients, and every patient is a COVID-19 patient, then providers can’t balance bill anyone.  However, as noted above, the actual requirement in the provider “Acceptance of Terms and Conditions” (available at https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/relief-fund-payment-terms-and-conditions.pdf) applies to “…all care for a presumptive or actual case of COVID-19.”  Even if every patient is a “presumptive” COVID-19 patient, it is simply not the case that all treatment is treatment for a COVID-19 case.

As beneficial as a broader interpretation of this guidance could be for payers, we would not advise payers to rely on it as it is simply not supported by the terms of the provider Terms and Conditions or consistent with the past positions of HHS.  First, note that the “every patient” language was found in explanatory public HHS guidance online, not the actual Terms and Conditions.  Additionally, as of April 24, 2020, that language appears to have been removed (perhaps due to the potential for misinterpretation, but that is of course speculation).  The link cited by the KHN article now redirects to https://www.hhs.gov/coronavirus/cares-act-provider-relief-fund/index.html, which as of April 24, 2020 does not contain the “every patient” language and states that its content was last reviewed on April 24, 2020. 

As the legal landscape around COVID-19 continues to rapidly develop, as always, don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions.

COVID-19 Testing & Cost-Containment

On April 1, 2020

By: Jon Jablon, Esq.

The CARES Act is brand new, obviously, but its treatment of the relationship between medical providers and health plans is anything but. As with just about all legislation to date on the topic of payor-provider relations, the legislature has not hesitated to essentially give all the power to the providers. The bill includes the following provisions:

SEC. 3202. PRICING OF DIAGNOSTIC TESTING.

(a) Reimbursement Rates.—A group health plan or a health insurance issuer providing coverage of items and services described in section 6001(a) of division F of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (Public Law 116–127) with respect to an enrollee shall reimburse the provider of the diagnostic testing as follows:

(1) If the health plan or issuer has a negotiated rate with such provider in effect before the public health emergency declared under section 319 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 247d), such negotiated rate shall apply throughout the period of such declaration.

(2) If the health plan or issuer does not have a negotiated rate with such provider, such plan or issuer shall reimburse the provider in an amount that equals the cash price for such service as listed by the provider on a public internet website, or such plan or issuer may negotiate a rate with such provider for less than such cash price.

If there is a negotiated rate between the payor and provider, then the payor must pay that rate. If, however, there is no previously-negotiated rate, then the payor and provider can either elect to negotiate a rate (on a case-by-case basis, or globally – same as any other payment contract), or, if negotiation is not possible or not successful, the plan is required to simply pay the provider whatever price the provider has identified on its website. In other words, the plan must pay a negotiated rate, if there is one, but if not, the plan must pay whatever the provider demands.

Even in this time of near-universal employer financial hardship, the legislature has been very careful to not give a damn about the costs incurred by health plans – including self-funded employer-sponsored plans, many of which are struggling small businesses. It will never cease to amaze me.

Interestingly, the section of the bill immediately following the one quoted above reads:

(b) Requirement To Publicize Cash Price For Diagnostic Testing For COVID–19.—

(1) IN GENERAL.—During the emergency period declared under section 319 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 247d), each provider of a diagnostic test for COVID–19 shall make public the cash price for such test on a public internet website of such provider.

(2) CIVIL MONETARY PENALTIES.—The Secretary of Health and Human Services may impose a civil monetary penalty on any provider of a diagnostic test for COVID–19 that is not in compliance with paragraph (1) and has not completed a corrective action plan to comply with the requirements of such paragraph, in an amount not to exceed $300 per day that the violation is ongoing.

So, the law requires payment of either a negotiated rate or the provider’s published rate – and the same law requires the provider to publish its rate. But what if it doesn’t, or what if the particular provider doesn’t maintain a website at all, as many smaller offices don’t? Health plans should be wary about what happens in the event the provider fails to “make public the cash price for such test on a public internet website.” It’s tempting to take the “you didn’t comply, so if you don’t negotiate a reasonable rate, we’ll report you” approach – but some consider that at least extortion-adjacent. Instead, a good practice may be to simply inform the provider – if it hasn’t posted a price – that there is no option but to negotiate, and make sure you’re armed with reasoning for what you should reasonably be paying.

One thing is clear, though: RBP plans will need to be careful here, since the legislature’s primary aim seems to be that patients do not get balance-billed for COVID-19 testing. The traditional RBP approach, then – where the Plan determines its pricing and then pays its minimum to the provider – is not going to be a viable option under the current state of the CARES Act. If there’s no pre-negotiated rate with the provider, the Plan must pay the provider’s published rate, or negotiate on the spot – but we strongly caution all health plans against creating a situation in which balance-billing is even a possibility.

New Insight on Provider Surprise Billing

On February 17, 2020

By: Andrew Silverio, Esq.

Anyone who works in health benefits is familiar with surprise billing – the specific kind of balance billing which occurs when a patient visits an in-network physician or hospital, and receives an unexpected balance bill from an out-of-network provider that they didn’t have an opportunity to select, and in many cases, didn’t even know they had utilized.  Common culprits are anesthesiologists, assistant surgeons, and outside lab work.

We often think of this as primarily a problem for emergency claims.  This makes a great deal of sense, since when someone presents at an ER or is brought there via ambulance, they likely won’t have an opportunity to ask questions about network participation or request specific providers.  However, according to surprising data released in the Journal of the American Medical Association on February 11, 2020 entitled “Out-of-Network Bills for Privately Insured Patients Undergoing Elective Surgery With In-Network Primary Surgeons and Facilities (available at jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2760735?guestAccessKey=9774a0bf-c1e7-45a4-b2a0-32f41c6fde66&utm_source=For_The_Media&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=ftm_links&utm_content=tfl&utm_term=021120), these bills don’t actually seem to be more likely to arise from emergencies or other hospital stays where patients have less of an opportunity to “shop around.” 

The study looked at 347,356 patients undergoing elective surgeries, at in-network facilities with in-network surgeons.  These are patients who had ample opportunity to select their providers, and indeed did select in-network providers for both the surgeon performing their procedure and the facility in which it would occur. Shockingly, over 20% of these encounters resulted in a surprise out of network bill (“Among 347 356 patients who had undergone elective surgery with in-network primary surgeons at in-network facilities . . . an out-of-network bill was present in 20.5% of episodes...”) The instances that involved surprise bills also corresponded to higher total charges - $48,383.00 in surprise billing situations versus $34,300.00 in non-surprise billing situations.

The most common culprits were surgical assistants, with an average surprise bill of $3,633.00, and anesthesiologists, with an average bill of $1,219.00.  In the context of previous research indicating that “20 percent of hospital admissions that originated in the emergency department . . . likely led to a surprise medical bill,” it seems that even when patients are able to do their homework and select in-network facilities and surgeons, they are just as susceptible to surprise billing. (See Garmon C, Chartock B., One In Five Inpatient Emergency Department Cases May Lead To Surprise Bills. Health Affairs, available at healthaffairs.org/doi/10.1377/hlthaff.2016.0970.)

Many states have enacted protections against balance billing and surprise billing, with Washington and Texas both recently enacting comprehensive legislation.  However, these state-based laws have limited applicability, and there are to date no meaningful federal protections for patients in these situations.  Until such protections are enacted, patients are left vulnerable to sometimes predatory billing practices, and plans are left to choose between absorbing that financial blow or leaving patients out in the cold.

Washington’s “Surprise” Billing Law Goes Into Effect – January 2020

On December 9, 2019

By: Andrew Silverio, Esq.

Starting in 2020, Washington’s new law aimed at putting an end to a particular form of balance billing, known as surprise billing , will go into effect.  This includes situations where a patient has no reasonable opportunity to make an informed choice regarding their utilization of in-network versus out-of-network providers, for example in the case of emergency services or non-emergency surgical or ancillary services which are provided by an out-of-network provider within an in-network facility.  In these cases, the patient has no way of choosing what providers to utilize, or may not know (and would have no reason to think to ask) that they could be treated by an out-of-network provider while visiting an in-network hospital.

Washington’s law mirrors the approach we have seen in several other states – it takes the patient out of the equation entirely by prohibiting the provider from pursuing any balances from them, and leaves the provider and payer to sort out the issue of any remaining balances.

In resolving outstanding balances, the provider and payer must come to a “commercially reasonable” amount based on payments for similar services in the same geographic area, and in this regard the state actually provides a data set for the parties to reference. If the parties can’t come to an agreement, either can request arbitration, and the arbitrator will choose one of the parties’ last proposed payment, encouraging the parties to submit reasonable amounts (for fear of having to defer to the other party’s offer).

Importantly, the law does not (and cannot, because of federal preemption) apply to private, self-funded plans which are governed by ERISA.  However, such plans can opt-in to the law via annual notification to the state.  These plans should not expect to enjoy the benefits of the law’s balance billing prohibitions if they choose not to opt-in, and reference to the state’s claims database, available on the Washington Department of insurance website, should help them in determining whether it makes sense to do so.

The full law can be found at http://lawfilesext.leg.wa.gov/biennium/2019-20/Pdf/Bills/Session%20Laws/House/1065-S2.SL.pdf, and a useful summary is available at https://www.insurance.wa.gov/sites/default/files/documents/summary-of-2019-surprise-billing-law.pdf.