The No Surprises Act, passed as part of the COVID-19 relief package, ensures patients do not receive surprise bills after out-of-network care, including hospital-based physicians such as pathologists
Consumer demand for price transparency in healthcare has been gaining support in Congress after several high-profile cases involving surprise medical billing received widespread reporting. Dark Daily covered many of these cases over the years.
Now, after initial opposition and months of legislative wrangling, organizations representing medical laboratories and clinical pathologists have expressed support for new federal legislation that aims to protect patients from surprise medical bills, including for clinical pathology and anatomic pathology services.
The new law Congress passed is known as the No Surprises Act (H.R.3630) and is part of the $900 billion COVID relief and government funding package signed by President Trump on December 27.
The law addresses the practice of “balance billing,” in which patients receive surprise bills for out-of-network medical services even when they use in-network providers. An ASCP policy statement noted that “a patient (consumer) may receive a bill for an episode of care or service they believed to be in-network and therefore covered by their insurance, but was in fact out-of-network.” This, according to the ASCP, “occurs most often in emergency situations, but specialties like pathology, radiology, and anesthesiology are affected as well.”
Most portions of the No Surprises Act take effect on January 1, 2022. The law prohibits balance billing for emergency care, air ambulance transport, or, in most cases, non-emergency care from in-network providers. Instead, if a patient unknowingly receives services from an out-of-network provider, they are liable only for co-pays and deductibles they would have paid for in-network care.
New Law Bars Pathologists from Balance Billing without Advance Patient Consent
The law permits balance billing under some circumstances, but only if the patient gives advance consent. And some specialties, including pathologists, are barred entirely from balance billing.
The law also establishes a process for determining how healthcare providers are reimbursed when a patient receives out-of-network care. The specifics of that process proved to be a major sticking point for providers. In states that have their own surprise-billing protections, payment will generally be determined by state law. Otherwise, payers and providers have 30 days to negotiate payment. If they can’t agree, payment is determined by an arbiter as part of an independent dispute resolution (IDR) process.
Early Proposal Drew Opposition
An early proposal to prohibit surprise billing drew opposition from a wide range of medical societies, including the ASCP, CAP, and the American Medical Association (AMA).
All were signatories to a July 29, 2020, letter sent to leaders of the US Senate and House of Representatives urging them to hold off from enacting surprise billing protections as part of COVID relief legislation. Though the groups agreed in principle with the need to protect patients from surprise billing, they contended that the proposed legislation leaned too heavily in favor of insurers, an ASCP news release noted.
“Legislative proposals that would dictate a set payment rate for unanticipated out-of-network care are neither market-based nor equitable, and do not account for the myriad inputs that factor into payment negotiations between insurers and providers,” the letter stated. “These proposals will only incentivize insurers to further narrow their provider networks and would also result in a massive financial windfall for insurers. As such, we oppose the setting of a payment rate in statute and are particularly concerned by proposals that would undermine hospitals and front-line caregivers during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
However, in a letter sent to the committee chairs and ranking members, the AHA asked for changes in the dispute-resolution provisions, including a prohibition on considering Medicare or Medicaid rates during arbitration. “We are concerned that the IDR process may be skewed if the arbiter is able to consider public payer reimbursement rates, which are well known to be below the cost of providing care,” the association stated. However, legislators agreed to the change after last-minute negotiations.
Dispute Resolution for Pathologists
The CAP also expressed support for the final bill. In a statement, CAP noted that “As the legislation evolved during the 116th Congress, CAP members met with their federal lawmakers to discuss the CAP’s policy priorities.
“Through the CAP’s engagement and collaboration with other physician associations, the legislation improved drastically,” the CAP stated. “Specifically, the CAP lobbied Congress to hold patients harmless, establish a fair reimbursement formula for services provided, deny insurers the ability to dictate payment, create an independent dispute resolution (IDR) process that pathologists can participate in, and require network adequacy standards for health insurers.”
As laboratory testing was identified by thousands of respondents to the University of Chicago survey as the top surprise bill, it is likely that billing and transparency in charges for clinical pathologist and anatomic pathologist will continue to be scrutinized by law makers and healthcare associations.
Insurance industry claims new federal price transparency regulations cost each payer as much as $13.6 million in set up and maintenance costs
Price transparency in hospital, clinical laboratory, and other service provider costs marches ever closer to reality for America’s healthcare consumers. Meanwhile, some insurers and hospital groups are working to block implementation of federal rules they argue will confuse consumers and potentially lead to higher costs.
The first is a Proposed Rule, titled, “Transparency in Coverage Proposed Rule” (CMS-9915-P) that would require payers to make public on their websites negotiated rates for in-network providers and allowed amounts paid for out-of-network providers. Insurers also would be required to make an online “tool” available to members that would provide consumers with out-of-pocket cost estimates for “all covered healthcare items and services.” The 60-day public comment period for this rule went into effect November 15, 2019.
Medical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups may want to closely monitor ongoing efforts by payers and hospital groups to block these rules, since any changes will extend to their services, as well as extend price transparency to most employer-based group health plans and health insurance issuers offering group and individual coverage.
Will Transparency Lead to Higher Healthcare Costs?
In its story on insurer claims, FierceHealthcare reported that the rule would require payers to disclose a “staggering” amount of data, leading to implementation costs 26 times more than the Trump administration’s $510,000 estimate. To comply with the federal rule, an insurer will spend as much as $13.63 million on setup and maintenance. That prediction is based on an economic analysis from economic consulting firm Bates White, which conducted the survey on behalf of The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA).
“Some plans have indicated they would be forced to run two sets of tools—one designed to meet member shopping needs and another implemented only to meet the requirements of the proposed rule,” the BCBSA told FierceHealthcare.
Meanwhile, the Association for Community Affiliated Plans (ACAP) argued in a letter to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Seema Verma that cost-sharing liability estimates—which are not a price quote for care—could “lead to consumer confusion and frustration.” The ACAP also asserts the transparency plan could inadvertently lead to higher healthcare cost increases.
“In the absence of quality data, consumers may determine that high cost equates to higher value, select the higher-cost providers, and ultimately drive up medical expenses, especially in circumstances where the consumer’s out-of-pocket costs have been met,” wrote ACAP Chief Executive Officer Margaret A. Murray.
“We have long supported efforts to make quality and pricing information more accessible, understandable, and actionable for consumers,” the ACHP wrote. “But they need real-time, patient-specific information tied to individual coverage benefits, not a massive published list of prices that may only frustrate consumers and likely increase costs over time.”
Hospital Associations and Healthcare Systems Bring Lawsuit Against HHS
In December 2019, several hospital associations and healthcare groups filed a lawsuit to block next year’s implementation of the hospital price transparency rule. The plaintiffs included the:
These healthcare organizations and providers joined together to argue that HHS lacks the statutory authority to require and enforce public disclosure of individually negotiated rates between commercial health insurers and hospitals. They also say consumers are likely to be confused by the information they receive.
In its legal response, HHS contends that hospitals are adding to consumers’ confusion by failing to provide transparency.
“They do not dispute that consumers are casting about for accurate information about prices in a complex healthcare system, yet they rely on that same complexity as an affirmative reason to deprive patients of pricing information they need to figure out their out-of-pocket expenses,” HHS said in its brief.
DePaul University Professor Anthony LoSasso, PhD, who specializes in healthcare economics, admits to being “on the fence” regarding the pros and cons of transparency plans.
“I want to think that people can benefit from price transparency. But for a variety of reasons, people don’t look at pricing info even when it’s available,” LoSasso told WTTW News in Chicago.
Nevertheless, HHS vows to continue its push for price transparency.
“Hospitals should be ashamed that they aren’t willing to provide American patients the cost of a service before they purchase it,” HHS Deputy Assistant Secretary and National Spokesperson Caitlin Oakley told Reuters in a response to the hospital groups’ lawsuit.
In light of the government’s push to make healthcare pricing more transparent, clinical laboratory and anatomic pathology leaders in hospitals and health systems would be wise to prepare for a future that includes price shopping by consumers.