Royal Oak Tribune

COVID bill to end ‘surprise’ medical bills

- By Ricardo AlonsoZald­ivar

WASHINGTON » People with private health insurance will see the nasty shock of “surprise” medical bills virtually gone, thanks to the coronaviru­s compromise passed by Congress.

The charges that can run from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars come from doctors and hospitals that are outside the network of a patient’s health insurance plan.

It’s estimated that about 1 in 5 emergency visits and 1 in 6 inpatient admissions will trigger a surprise bill.

Although lawmakers of both parties long agreed that the practice amounted to abusive billing, a lobbying war between doctors and insurers had thwarted a compromise, allowing the impasse to become a symbol of dysfunctio­n in Washington.

“This has been a profoundly distressin­g pocketbook issue for families for years,” said Karen Pollitz, a health insurance expert with the nonpartisa­n Kaiser Family Foundation. “Some of these bills are onerous, and they all strike people as completely unfair.”

The compromise would take patients and their families out of the financial crosshairs by limiting what they can be billed for out- of-network services to a fee that’s based on in-network charges.

The amount consumers pay would get counted toward their in-network annual deductible.

Insurers and service providers would submit their billing disputes to an independen­t dispute resolution process, which will follow certain guidelines.

The main provisions of the legislatio­n would take effect Jan. 1, 2022.

“Generally speaking, keeping the consumer out of it and forcing the providers to be the ones to settle is a positive,” said Eagan Kemp, a policy expert with Public Citizen, a liberal advocacy group.

Although states have been moving to curb surprise billing, federal action was needed because states do not have jurisdicti­on over large employer plans that cover tens of millions of workers and their families.

Key elements of the legislatio­n would:

• Hold patients harmless from surprise bills stemming from emergency medical care. That would apply if the patient is seen at an out- of-network facility, or if they are treated by an out-of-network clinician at an in-network hospital. In either case, the patient could only be billed based on their plan’s in-network rate.

• Protect patients admitted to an in-network hospital for a planned procedure when an out- of-network clinician gets involved. This can happen when a surgeon is called in to assist in the operating room, or if the anesthesio­logist on duty is not part of the patient’s plan.

• Generally require outof- network service providers to give patients 72hour notice of their estimated charges. Patients would have to agree to receive out- of-network care for the hospital or doctor to then bill them.

• Bar air ambulance services from sending patients surprise bills for more than the in-network cost sharing amount. Air ambulance charges have become a bigger problem in states where patients have to travel long distances to get to the best hospitals. However, ground ambulance services will not face the same restrictio­ns, and the legislatio­n only calls for more study of their billing practices.

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