Florida, California lawmakers target unexpected medical bills
Florida is poised to become the second big state after New York to shield patients from surprise out-of-network medical bills, and California may not be far behind if lawmakers there can cinch a similar deal with physicians.
The issue has caught fire around the country, with even health professionals facing the personal experience of unexpected bills for hundreds or thousands of dollars. Consumers Union reported last year that among people who had emergency department visits, hospitalizations or operations in the previous two years, 37% received a bill for which their health plan paid less than expected. Among those who received a surprise bill, nearly 1 out of 4 got a bill from a doctor they did not expect to get a bill from.
Legislators and insurance officials in Georgia, Hawaii, Missouri, New Jersey and Pennsylvania are studying the issue or considering legislation. “It’s not a red or blue issue, it’s really bipartisan,” said Betsy Imholz, special projects director at Consumers Union. “Every legislator and staffer understands it and often has been a victim of it.”
Nearly everyone agrees that patients who unwittingly receive services from out-of-network providers at in-network facilities should be protected from these bills. The political holdup is determining how much to pay the out-of-network providers. Florida left it up to a to-be-developed dispute resolution process, while California is still trying to solve that issue.
Florida’s Republican-dominated Legislature passed a bipartisan bill last month that would protect patients from paying balance bills from out-of-network providers in both emergency and non-emergency situations. This would apply when the patients go to a healthcare facility in their health plan network and inadvertently receive services from a non-network provider. Patients would only be responsible for paying their usual in-network cost-sharing.
Plans and nonparticipating providers would have to work out payment for those services through a state-arranged, voluntary disputeresolution process, with a penalty assessed to the party refusing to accept an offer that was close to the final arbitration order. The negotiation would be based on the usual and customary rate for the particular area. Disputes could be taken to court. The bill would only apply to PPO-type plans, since Florida already bars balance billing HMO-patients.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott has until April 14 to decide whether to sign the bill, which has strong support from the state’s chief financial officer. The Florida Medical Association and other major stakeholder groups back the bill, though anesthesiology and radiology groups oppose it. The Florida Hospital Association said it agrees “with the general direction of the legislation.” Scott’s office did not return a call for comment.
The Florida Association of Health Plans said surprise out-of-network bills are the No. 1 consumer healthcare complaint. “This is the most comprehensive consumer protection legislation in the country on (this issue), and our association is proud to support it,” said Audrey Brown, the association’s CEO. “The stakeholders came together and agreed to remove patients from the middle of disputes between insurers and providers.”
Jeff Scott, general counsel of the Florida Medical Association, said the bill was a compromise that was acceptable to most physicians even though the real problem is that insurers don’t fully inform consumers what they’re buying.
Meanwhile, in California, a broad coalition of payers, unions, consumer advocates and some providers are backing a similar bipartisan bill that nearly passed the Legislature late last year and now is being considered in amended form. The bill would establish a binding, independent dispute-resolution process for insurers and providers in cases where patients received care from out-of-network providers at in-network facilities. It would apply only to nonemergency care, since emergency physicians are already barred from balance billing patients by a state Supreme Court ruling.
But the California Medical Association strongly opposes the bill, arguing it would hinder consumers’ ability to use their out-of-network benefits and give plans too much leverage over physicians. The CMA did not provide comment for this article.
The California Hospital Association is neutral on the bill. A CHA spokeswoman said there’s little hospitals can do since state law bars them from employing doctors or requiring them to join particular health plans, plus hospitals have no way of knowing when hospital-based physician groups will use a nonparticipating physician on an on-call basis.
Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, which sponsored the bill, said the political hang-up is that the CMA wants generous guaranteed payment rates for outof-network physicians. But payers say those would be higher than marketbased negotiated rates and would drive up costs. Still, he predicted the bill will pass this session, which ends Aug. 31, because public pressure is mounting. “When people get these bills, it makes everyone look bad, and there’s a common interest in getting this resolved.”