There’s a big fight brewing in DC. No, not the one between the “Squad” and President Trump, which will likely be forgotten as soon as the outrage addicts need a new fix. The fight we’re talking about will have a much greater impact on Americans and is occuring between insurers and hospitals over various proposals to combat “surprise bills.”
The bottom line: as these behemoths clash, patients and physicians — those who need medical care, and those who deliver it — are set to be further marginalized.
We interrupt this blog post for a quick, but important, Action Alert: The bill furthest along at the moment is the Senate HELP bill, S 1895, which is now eligible for a vote on the Senate floor after passing through committee on July 8. A favorable (but unrealistic) CBO score has also been issued, increasing its chances for a vote. CALL BOTH OF YOUR U.S. SENATORS and tell them to VOTE NO on S 1895 if it comes up for a vote. The fastest way to reach your Senators is by calling the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121.
A review of the the major problems with S 1895, and others like it, can be found here, here, here, and here. S 1895, while containing potentially a few helpful provisions, is for the most part, putting band-aids on top of existing failed cancerous policies — band-aids that will exacerbate the disease instead of excising the tumor causing it. Not to mention that insurance-company controlled “unsurprise bills” may be a significantly bigger problem than surprise bills, as disintermediator Dave Chase explains. In addition the bill imposes system-wide rules to address a problem that is not as widespread as advertised. “The cost of surprise bills is a small portion of all health care spending…,” reports the CBO in its score of the bill.
In the physician community, some are suggesting that legislation like S 1895 would be acceptable if arbitration provisions are included. There is also a suggestion that a competing bill over on the House side, HR 3502 (Ruiz/Roe) is the compromise bill that can be supported, because it includes an arbitration option, and is modeled after New York’s heralded surprise billing regulations. [Update: similar arbitration provisions have now also been added to the House E&C legislation (HR 3630) addressing surprise bills.]
As state regulation of market transactions go, NY’s surprise billing law seems to cut a reasonable path. It prohibits abuses by hospitals without swinging the pendulum too far in favor of insurers. It permits a reasonable level of flexibility for patients and physicians to interact on mutually agreeable terms.
But does HR 3502 really mirror NY statue? Both do allow for arbitration, but aside from that the similarities meaningfully end.
Here are some key differences:
1) The NY law kicks in only with charges above 120% of the Usual and Customary, defined to mean “the eightieth percentile of all charges for the particular health care service.” That’s a pretty high bar that helps contain overregulation.
Conversely, HR3502 sets a benchmark price at “the commercially reasonable rate, as determined by the plan or issuer.” That is drastically one-sided in favor of insurers and likely unconstitutional, argues a former U.S. Solicitor General.
Yes arbitration may help provide relief from this extreme price setting to hospitals, and health systems, and “Wall Street-owned doctor groups” who can afford the expense, but arbitration is not a meaningful option for small or independent practices in many cases.
2) Also the NY law defines “Surprise Bill” in a way that allows patients and physicians some ability to voluntarily opt out of limitations, if both parties desire, i.e.: “a surprise bill shall not mean a bill received for health care services when a participating physician is available and the insured has elected to obtain services from a non-participating physician….” And under the NY law, patients have to take an affirmative step to trigger a prohibition on balance billing: ” When an insured assigns benefits for a surprise bill in writing to a non-participating physician that knows the insured is insured under a health care plan, the non-participating physician shall not bill the insured except for any applicable copayment, coinsurance or deductible that would be owed if the insured utilized a participating physician.” https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/laws/FIS/608
HR 3502, on the other hand, makes no provisions for patients and physicians voluntarily opting out of the provisions of the legislation, and in fact levies fines and penalties on physicians who don’t comply: “if such nonparticipating provider holds such individual liable for a payment amount for such an item or service furnished by such provider that is more than the cost-sharing amount for such item or service … such provider shall be subject … to a civil money penalty of not more than an amount determined appropriate by the Secretary for each specified claim.
So back to the question posed in the title of this post, is the NY surprise billing law a model for federal legislation? If it were actually being followed as a model, the answer might be “yes.” But given the existing bills on the table in DC, the answer is “no.” NY law is being followed as a model in name only, not in practice.
Ultimately, the phenomenon of surprise bills signals a more fundamental problem: past failed policies that tilt the playing field in favor third party payment and punish direct payment limit patient options and are impeding market forces from squeezing out costs that line the pockets of administrators and middlemen who add minimal or no value. It is past time to level the playing field and unleash innovations that will allow those who care for patients the freedom provide an abundance of lower cost, high-quality options.