When people receive COVID-19 testing at an out-of-network facility, federal law requires insurers to pay that clinical laboratory’s posted ‘cash price’ when negotiated prices have not previously been established
In the latest example that some COVID-19 testing companies are charging significantly higher prices than others, The New York Times (NYT) recently reported that one COVID lab company with “more than a dozen testing sites” throughout the US was charging $380 for a COVID-19 rapid test that can be purchased at many drug stores for $20. Sadly, this practice, the NYT also noted, is protected by federal law.
Media reporters and the lay public are not fully aware of the long-established clinical laboratory test payment modalities that govern the daily performance of tests ordered as part of regular healthcare. Thus, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit—along with tens of billions of federal dollars to pay for SARS-CoV-2 tests—it triggered a gold rush of people wanting to get into the clinical laboratory testing business specifically to make money.
It is the bad actors in this group who are tainting the entire clinical laboratory industry with often outrageous business practices that, at best, cross ethical lines—such as overpricing tests to consumers—and at worst, represent fraudulent behavior, such as inducing medically-unnecessary tests, then submitting claims for these tests.
Even as the pandemic appears to be waning, news outlets are reporting instances of insurers being charged higher “cash prices” for tests performed by out-of-network testing laboratories. Worse yet, federal law requires insurers to pay these exorbitant prices and they are not happy about it.
In-Network versus Out-of-Network Pricing
In its report, the NYT noted that the CARES Act (H.R. 748) requires insurers to pay whatever “cash prices” out-of-network labs post online, and that this is leading to “expensive coronavirus tests” that could ultimately be reflected in future “higher insurance premiums” charged to healthcare consumers.
One company the NYT highlighted in its report is GS Labs in Omaha, Neb., a provider of COVID-19 testing throughout the US. The testing company’s COVID-19 Pricing Transparency webpage lists these prices for the following COVID-19 tests:
“Insurers are obligated to pay cash price, unless we come to a negotiated rate,” Christopher Erickson, a GS Labs Partner, told the NYT.
Negotiate or ‘Pay the Provider’s Cash Price’
In Missouri, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City (Blue KC) has filed a lawsuit against GS Labs. “This action seeks a judgment declaring Blue KC and our members are not required to pay GS Labs’ unreasonable, inflated reimbursement demands,” according to a Blue KC news release.
However, section 3202 of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act “specifies the process for private health insurance plan issuers to reimburse providers of COVID-19 diagnostic tests. Specifically, a reimbursement rate negotiated for such test prior to the public health emergency declared on January 31, 2020, continues to apply for the duration of the emergency. If a reimbursement rate was not negotiated prior to the emergency declaration, an issuer may either negotiate such rate or pay the provider’s cash price.”
In its own news release, GS Labs said it has “countersued Blue KC over the insurance company’s failure to pay $9.7 million for COVID tests covered by federal law.”
According to a legal expert who spoke with the NYT, GS Labs has grounds for its test charges due to the CARES Act. “Whatever price the lab puts on their public facing website, that is what has to be paid. I don’t read a whole lot of wiggle room in it,” said Sabrina Corlette, JD, Research Professor and Co-Director of the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University.
The patient, Travis Warner, reportedly has insurance from Molina Healthcare through the federal Health Insurance Marketplace. After an employee at his company tested positive for COVID-19, Warner drove 30 miles outside of Dallas in search of COVID-19 testing sites. He eventually visiting an out-of-network free-standing emergency room in Lewisville where he received PCR diagnostic and rapid antigen tests. The results of the tests were negative for COVID-19. But the bill was a shock.
The total bill came to $56,384. Molina Healthcare paid its negotiated rate of $16,915.20 for the testing and facility fee, leaving Warner responsible for the remaining $54,000!
In the end, Warner did not have to pay the bill. Molina resolved the charge with SignatureCare and, in a statement to KHN, wrote, “This matter was a provider billing error, which Molina identified and corrected.”
For its part, SignatureCare Emergency Centers, with freestanding centers throughout Texas, said it has a “robust audit process” to flag errors and processed “thousands of records a day” at the height of the pandemic, according to KHN, which reported the business showing a $175 price for a COVID-19 test on its website.
“If the insurance company is paying astronomical sums of money for your care, that means in turn that you are going to be paying higher (insurance) premiums,” Adler told KHN.
Insurance Group Finds Price Gouging
“Price gouging on COVID-19 tests by certain providers continues to be a widespread problem,” according to a statement by America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), a national association representing insurers.
AHIP has studied COVID-19 test prices since April 2020. It released a survey earlier this year which found COVID-19 test prices were on average $130. However, AHIP also found that out-of-network providers charged “significantly higher” (more than $185) for more than half (54%) of COVID-19 tests (PCR, antigen, antibody) in March 2021—a 12% increase since 2020. More than 27% of COVID-19 tests in March 2021 were done out-of-network, a 6% increase since 2020.
However, in, “COVID-19 Lab Test Prices Give Some Health Plans ‘Indigestion’,” Dark Daily’s sister publication, The Dark Report, wrote, “Interestingly, [AHIP] researchers reported that the share of COVID-19 tests claims submitted from ‘high-cost locations’—identified as hospitals and emergency departments—declined from 18% in the first three months of the pandemic to only 5% during the first three months of 2021.”
Niall Brennan, President and CEO of the Health Care Cost Institute (HCCI), told KHN, “People are going to charge what they think they can get away with. Even a perfectly well-intentioned provision like [the CARES Act] can be hijacked by certain unscrupulous providers for nefarious purposes.”
Of course, most medical laboratories priced their tests fairly and have performed them in an efficient and professional manner during the pandemic. So, it is unfortunate to learn through AHIP’s survey findings and the media that some COVID-19 testing providers are posting prices that may confuse patients and affect their health insurance premiums.
While clinical laboratories may not be directly affected by copay accumulators, anything that affects patients’ ability to pay for healthcare will likely impact lab revenues as well
Here’s a new term and strategy that some big employers are
deploying in an attempt to control the choice of health benefits provided to
their employees. The term is “copay accumulator” and it is intended to offset
efforts by pharmaceutical companies to minimize what consumers must pay
out-of-pocket for expensive prescription drugs.
Clinical laboratory managers and pathologists will have a front row seat to watch this next round in the struggle between industry giants for control over how patients pay for drugs and treatment regimes.
Pharmaceutical companies on one side and health insurers and employers on the other side have played brinksmanship over medication copays for years. Now at the center of this struggle are copay accumulators, a relatively new feature of plans from insurers and pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) on behalf of the large employers they serve.
More than 41-million Americans use copay accumulators, and about nine million use similar though limited copay maximizer programs, Zitter Health Insights, a New Jersey-based pharma and managed care consultancy firm, told Reuters.
Now, big employers are getting in on the game. Walmart
(NYSE:WMT) and Home Depot (NYSE:HD) are among a growing number of companies using
copay accumulators and copay maximizers to keep their healthcare costs down and
encourage employees to seek lower-cost alternatives to expensive brand
prescriptions (generic drugs).
About 25% of employers currently use such programs, and 50% of employers are anticipated to be doing so in just two more years, the National Business Group on Health told Reuters.
What Are Copay
Accumulators and How Do They Work?
In response to popular drug company discount cards,
insurance companies developed the “copay accumulator.” Here’s how it works.
Typically, patients’ insurance plan deductibles can be thousands
of dollars. Thus, even after plan discounts, patients often pay hundreds, even
thousands of dollars each month for prescribed medications. Insurance companies
see a beneficial side to this, stating the cost encourages patients to be aware
of their medications and motivates them to try lower-cost non-branded
alternatives (generic drugs), all of which saves insurance plans money.
However, many patients with high-deductibles balk at paying
the high cost. They opt to not fill prescriptions, which costs pharmaceutical
To encourage patients to fill prescriptions, drug companies
provide discount cards to help defray the cost of the drugs. The difference
between the discounted payment and the full price of the drug is paid by the
pharmaceutical company. But these discount cards interfere with insurance
companies’ ability to effectively track their enrollees’ drug usage, which
impacts the payers’ bottom lines.
When a patient uses a drug discount card at the point-of-sale, the sale is noted by the patient’s health insurer and the insurer’s copay accumulator program kicks in. It caps the total accumulated discount an enrollee can take for that medication and prevents any patient payments to apply toward the plan’s deductible. Once the drug company’s discount card threshold is reached, the patient bears the full cost of the drug, a ZS Associates Active Ingredient blog post explained.
Critics of copay accumulators point out that patients could
end up paying full price for extremely expensive prescriptions they previously
accessed with discount cards, while simultaneously making no progress toward
fulfilling their insurance deductibles. Or, they will simply stop taking their
“A medication which previously cost $7 may suddenly cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars because the maximum amount of copay assistance from the [drug] manufacturer was reached,” noted Ken Majkowski, Pharm.D, Chief Pharmacy Officer at FamilyWize (a company that offers its own prescription savings programs), in a blog post. “Since the health plan will no longer allow the copay amounts to contribute to the patient’s deductible, the cost of the medication remains very high.”
Major Employers Implement
Their Own Copay Accumulator Programs
Enter the next goliath into the fray—the large employer. Executives
at Walmart and Home Depot say discount drug coupons drive up healthcare costs
and give their employees and their family members no incentive to explore lower
cost alternatives, Reuters reported.
Walmart’s pharmacy benefits are managed by Express Scripts, a prescription benefit plan provider that fills millions of prescriptions annually, according to the company’s website. Meanwhile, Home Depot’s pharmacy benefits are operated by CVSHealth, which focuses on therapies for cystic fibrosis, hepatitis C, cancer, HIV, psoriasis, pulmonary arterial hypertension, and hyperlipidemia, Reuters noted.
“The bigger question is why do we need copay coupons at all? It’s very important to recognize the problem starts with the [drug] price. This is the real underlying problem,” Cathryn Donaldson, Director of Communications, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), told the Los Angeles Times.
In their blog post, ZS Associates advised drug companies to
“push-back” on the copay accumulators. The Evanston, Ill.-based consultancy
firm recommends pharma executives change the way they run the discount cards—such
as paying rebates directly to patients instead of working through pharmacies.
Medical laboratory leaders need to be aware of programs,
such as copay accumulators, and the associated issues that affect patients’
ability to pay for their healthcare. Because large numbers of patients struggle
to pay these high deductibles, it means clinical laboratories will be competing
more frequently with hospitals, physicians, imaging providers, and others to
get patients to pay their lab test bills.
Though patients get a big discount when paying for drugs, copay accumulators prohibit discounts from applying to plan deductibles, extending time it takes for enrollees to reach full plan coverage
There’s a new insurance/payer industry tactic in town and Dark Daily thinks clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups should know about it. It’s called a “copay accumulator” and it was designed by payers in response to pharmaceutical company copay assistance cards and discount coupons.
How do Copay Accumulators Work?
Many consumers use manufacturer copay assistance programs, copay cards, and coupons to afford expensive brand-name medications. As payers attempt to make consumers pay a higher portion of drug costs, pharmaceutical companies have responded by offering financial aid to patients in the form of copay assistance cards and coupons. These discounts insulate patients from having to pay the full deductible required by their health insurance plans for medicines prescribed by their doctors.
However, payers say these deductibles were designed to motivate patients to monitor the price of prescribed drugs and discourage the overutilization of costly medicines. A primary goal of price transparency and precision medicine.
The upside to payers is, with a copay accumulator in place, the amount of those manufacturer discounts does not count toward the patient’s insurance deductible. And the longer it takes for patients to reach their deductibles, the longer the insurer gets to collect copays, which adds to the controversy of copay accumulators.
Also, prohibiting drug manufacturer discounts from counting toward a patient’s insurance deductible prolongs the time patients have to wait before full coverage begins. Thus, more upfront costs are shifted to consumers.
Others, however, claim manufacturer discounts are simply marketing schemes used by pharmaceutical companies to keep drug costs high.
“The true issue remains that drug pricing continues to skyrocket, with no clear explanation on how those prices are set,” Cathryn Donaldson, Director of Communications, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), told the LA Times. “Copay coupon programs hide the true impact of rising prescription drug costs.” (Photo copyright: AHIP.)
Patients Stuck in the Middle
Physicians and patient advisory groups worry that shifting more drug costs to patients may affect therapy adherence and cause confusion for consumers.
“But the Achilles heel for the pharmacy benefits manager is that you’re hurting the patient, who is stuck in the middle,” continued Vogenberg. “Patients may end up not taking or getting a drug, which is not good for anyone. And it’s not really affecting pricing because patients are still hurting. Unfortunately, it makes the third-party payer look like a crook.”
Managed Care notes that, according to a recent survey of 170 employers conducted by the National Business Group on Health (NBGH), 29% of employers plan on using copay accumulators in 2019. That’s up from the 17% of employers who are currently using them.
“They are not universal yet,” Steve Wojcik, Vice President of Public Policy at the NBGH, told Managed Care. “But they will probably continue to be one tool that employers use to keep costs down.”
Drug Costs Down, Cost to Patients Up
The struggles between payers and big pharma could be heating up. Studies show utilization of copay accumulators may be negatively impacting drug company revenue. Research conducted by Sector and Sovereign (SSR) found that retail drug prices in the United States fell 5.6% during the first quarter of this year. During the same period last year, prices fell just 1.7%. SSR’s report states that most of the decline in prices is due to copay accumulators.
“Unless manufacturers adapt their copay support programs fairly drastically, net price declines may worsen in 2019,” SSR analyst Richard Evans told Reuters.
Clinical laboratories might not directly feel the effects of copay accumulators. Nevertheless, anything that impacts patients’ ability to pay, especially those on high-deductible health plans, should be on the radar of smart lab managers and stakeholders.
Clinical laboratories may want to offset plunging patient lab specimens by increasing outreach business
Hospital admissions are in decline across the country and the trend is being blamed in part on the rising use of high-deductible health plans (HDHP). The implications for hospital-based clinical laboratories is that lower in-patient totals reduce the flow of patient lab specimens as well. This situation may encourage some hospital and health-system labs to increase their lab outreach business as a way to offset declining inpatient lab test volumes and help keep down overall average test costs.
“We are really talking about how providers are not taking in as much revenue as they are spending,” Healthcare Dive noted. “Hospitals are largely fixed cost businesses, and rising expenses have been outpacing admissions growth.”
Experts Claim the ‘Hand Writing Is on the Wall’
According to Healthcare Dive’s analysis of US hospital admissions, which used data from the American Hospital Association’s Annual Survey, hospital admissions peaked at 35.4 million in 2013, coinciding with the roll out of the Affordable Care Act. The total fell to 34.9 million in 2014, before rebounding slightly to 35.1 million in 2015. The 2016 survey, published in 2018, showed hospital admissions remaining relatively flat at approximately 35.2 million.
Paul Hughes-Cromwick (above), Co-Director, Sustainable Health Spending Strategies, Altarum in Ann Arbor, Mich., expects hospitals to be challenged by flat admission rates going forward. “Times are still pretty good, but the writing is on the wall for hospital operators,” he told Modern Healthcare. This will impact clinical laboratories owned by hospitals and health systems as well. Photo copyright: Long Beach Business Journal.)
Most experts place the blame for slumping patient admissions on HDHPs. Such plans, which are paired with a tax-advantaged health savings account, have enabled employers to shift initial medical costs to workers in exchange for lower monthly health insurance premiums. Nearly 20.2 million Americans were enrolled in HDHPs in 2016, up from 15.4 million in 2013 and far above the roughly one million plans in existence in 2005, the AHIP surveys revealed. HDHPs were first authorized by Congress in 2003.
Consumers Delaying or Opting Out of Healthcare
Faced with higher out-of-pocket medical costs, consumers are opting to postpone or forgo elective surgeries and procedures, which in turn is placing pressure on healthcare systems’ operating revenues.
“The more elective procedures, things like orthopedics, we see the softness,” Evans told Modern Healthcare. “So, we think that does play into the story of deductibles rising and changing behaviors.”
The challenges for not-for-profit hospital systems are no different. Modern Healthcare noted that the 14-hospital Indiana University Health system reported a 46% drop in operating income in the third quarter of FY 2017 on a year-over-year admission decline of 2%.
Healthcare Systems Rethinking Their Business Strategies
“We are seeing and are working with health systems to take out pretty significant amounts of cost out of their operations, both clinical and nonclinical, and setting targets like 15-20%, which is a transformative change,” Igor Belokrinitsky, Vice President and Partner at Strategy&, PricewaterhouseCoopers’ strategy consulting group, told Healthcare Dive in a 2017 interview.
Lower hospital in-patient volume means less clinical laboratory test orders. This, in turn, will result in increases in the average cost per inpatient test. Anatomic pathology groups and medical laboratory leaders who work in or service hospitals may wish to take proactive steps to boost test referrals from outpatient and outreach settings as a way to help keep down the lab’s average cost per test.
Thus, as Medicare patients shift from Medicare Part B (which pays any provider a fee-for-service reimbursement) to a Medicare Advantage plan (with a narrow network), labs in that community lose access to that patient.
Now a recent government study of the Medicare Advantage program has interesting findings. For seniors in poor health, the private healthcare plans can prove costly if they lose access to specialized healthcare and the freedom to go to any doctor or hospital.
High Turnover Could Mean Poor Quality Plans
A 2017 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that beneficiaries in poor health are more likely to disenroll from Medicare Advantage Plans—a sign that the quality of plans with higher than normal turnover may be poor. The agency reviewed 126 Medicare Advantage plans and found that 35 of them had disproportionately high numbers of sicker people dropping out. Many seniors cited problems with “coverage of preferred doctors and hospitals” and “access to care.” The GAO is urging the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to review disenrollment data by health status and disenrollment reasons as part of the agency’s routine monitoring efforts.
“People who are sicker are much more likely to leave [Medicare Advantage plans] than people who are healthier,” James Cosgrove, Director of Healthcare at the GAO, told Kaiser Health News.
“A Medicare Advantage plan sponsor does not have an evergreen right to participate in and profit from the Medicare program, particularly if it is providing poor care,” Lipschutz told Kaiser Health News.
David Lipschutz, JD (above), Managing Attorney for the Center for Medicare Advocacy, is calling for tighter oversight of Medicare Advantage Plans following a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) showing an exodus of sicker patients from some Medicare Advantage plans. (Photo copyright: Center for Medicare Advocacy.)
Threat to Regional Medical Laboratories by Narrow Networks
Dark Daily previously reported on how enrollment shifts from traditional Medicare to Medicare Advantage threaten the financial health of regional clinical labs, which typically lose access to Medicare Advantage beneficiaries. In 2017, one in three (33%) Medicare beneficiaries was enrolled in a private Medicare Advantage plan, reflecting 8% growth (1.4 million beneficiaries) between 2016 and 2017, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) report.
Medicare Advantage’s private health plans are attractive to many seniors because of lower cost sharing and expanded benefits, such as hearing aid and eyeglass coverage and fitness club memberships. The tradeoff, however, requires forfeiting access to Medicare Part A (hospital insurance) and Part B (medical insurance) and accepting a narrower network of providers and hospitals.
An analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that more than three in 10 (35%) of Medicare Advantage enrollees in 2015 were in narrow-network plans. On average, Medicare Advantage networks included less than half (46%) of physicians in a county. The size and composition of Medicare Advantage Provider networks greatly impacts smaller clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups, which often are excluded from narrow-network plans. (Image copyright: KFF.)
Ron Brandwein, Health Insurance Information, Counseling and Assistance Program Coordinator at Lifespan of Greater Rochester, N.Y., believes consumers need to understand the limitations of Medicare Advantage plans.
“It’s very competitive, very dog eat dog,” he told the Democrat and Chronicle, adding that, once a person signs up with a Medicare Advantage plan, all their dollars for care are sent to that plan. “If they wind up going to a doctor or hospital that doesn’t accept it, they can’t fall back on Medicare because Medicare won’t pay their bills anymore because they’ve given their dollars to their chosen Advantage plan,” he said.
One in three Medicare Advantage enrollees in 2015 were in a plan with a narrow physician network (less than 30% of physicians in the county);
43% were in medium-sized networks (30% to 69% of physicians in the county); and,
Just 22% were in broad plans that included 70% or more of physicians in the county.
“Insurers may create narrow networks for a variety of reasons, such as to have greater control over the costs and quality of care provided to enrollees in the plan,” KFF reported. “The size and composition of Medicare Advantage provider networks is likely to be particularly important to enrollees when they have an unforeseen medical event or serious illness. However, accessing the information may not be easy for users, and comparing networks could be especially challenging. Beneficiaries could unwittingly face significant costs if they accidentally go out-of-network.”
But Kristine Grow, Senior Vice President, Communications, at America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), contends most consumers are satisfied with their Medicare Advantage plans, as evidenced by the growth in Medicare Advantage enrollment. She told Kaiser Health News that patients in the GAO study mostly switched from one health plan to another to take advantage of a better deal or more inclusive coverage.
“We have to remember these are plans working hard to deliver the best care they can,” Grow said. Insurers compete vigorously for business and “want to keep members for the longer term,” she added.
Smaller Clinical Laboratories at Greatest Risk
The implications for anatomic pathology groups and medical laboratories is clear. As Dark Daily has reported, increasing reliance by insurers on narrow networks to stem raising costs limits the number of physicians ordering medical testing, reducing lab revenues and threatening the entire pathology industry—especially smaller clinical laboratories. And, since Medicare patients now represent more than 50% of all patients in the healthcare system, the impact of that aging population’s behavior increases each year.