20 things to know about balance billing

As payers and providers wage war over reimbursement rates for medical services, patients have been increasingly strapped with unanticipated healthcare bills that can have detrimental financial effects.

The practice of balance billing refers to a physician's ability to bill the patient for an outstanding balance after the insurance company submits its portion of the bill. Out-of-network physicians, not bound by contractual, in-network rate agreements, have the ability to bill patients for the entire remaining balance.

Balance billing may occur when a patient receives a bill for an episode of care previously believed to be in-network and therefore covered by the insurance company, or when an insurance company contributes less money for a medical service than a patient expected.

In recent years, the rise in out-of-network payer-provider reimbursement clashes have spawned a growing number of balance billing cases. Last October, Aetna discouraged members from seeking emergency medical care at in-network Allegheny Health Network hospitals in Pittsburgh after out-of-network emergency physicians began 'aggressively' balance billing policy holders. In a more drastic move, UnitedHealthcare announced last year the insurer would no longer cover medical bills for members who unknowingly received out-of-network treatment by physicians at in-network hospitals.  

Patients, caught in the financial crosshairs, often feel powerless to negotiate costs. Consumer advocacy groups and federal and state legislators are turning their attention to balance billing practices this year with renewed vigor, forcing payers and providers to find other ways to settle financial disagreements.

Here are 20 things to know about balance billing.

1. Balance billing is on the rise nationally. In 2011, around 8 percent of privately insured individuals used out-of-network care, 40 percent of which resulted in unanticipated medical costs due to balance billing, reports Health Services Research. In 2015, a nationwide study from Consumers Union found nearly one third of privately insured Americans received an unanticipated bill when their health plan paid less than expected for medical services within the past two years.

2. Balance billing complaints are up 1,000 percent in Texas. According to the Texas Department of Insurance, balance billing complaints rose from 112 in 2012 to 1,334 in 2015, an increase of 1,000 percent.

3. Lack of provider, network transparency. The rise in balance billing is partially attributable to a lack of network transparency with patients.In many cases patients are unaware they have received out-of-network care until they receive a balance bill in the mail. Nearly 70 percent of individuals with unaffordable out-of-network medical bills did not know the healthcare provider was not in their plan's network at the time of care, according to a survey conducted by Kaiser Family Foundation and The New York Times.

4. Emergency room services to blame, in part. A Health Services Research survey found in 2011, 68 percent of inpatient involuntary contact with out-of-network physicians was related to emergency care. These kinds of unanticipated medical bills may arise when a hospital participates in an insurer's network but its employed emergency physicians do not. For example, more than half of the hospitals in some Texas insurers' networks did not have a single physician on staff covered by the insurer, according to a 2015 study from the Centers for Public Policy Priorities in Austin.

5. Balance billing and contracted physicians. Many hospitals use physician outsourcing firms for anesthesiologists, emergency physicians, pathologists and radiologists, or will bring in an outside assistant surgeon to help with procedures. In many cases, these physicians do not participate in the same network as the hospital, unbeknownst to the patient. When physician groups and insurers are unable to resolve reimbursement disputes, patients can be served with much higher out-of-network charges. In Texas, for example, the specialty services most likely to submit balance bills are anesthesiologists, lab services, surgery and radiology, reports the Texas Department of Insurance.

6. Payers will fight out-of-network physicians with lower reimbursement rates. Last year, health insurance giant UnitedHealthcare said it would scale back how much it pays out-of-network physicians who practice at in-network hospitals, accusing physicians of demanding excessively high reimbursement levels, according to Kaiser Health News. During a billing dispute with out-of-network Bayonne (N.J.) Medical Center, the insurer accused the hospital of charging out-of-network rates 10 to 12 times higher for a medical service than area hospitals participating in United'snetwork. If a payer refuses to match physician reimbursement rates, the financial burden is passed on to the patient. In the aforementioned dispute between Bayonne and UnitedHealthcare, the patient was balance billed $1,170 for a total of five stitches.    

7. Insurers are narrowing networks in an effort to reduce costs. As insurance companies have narrowed provider networks to keep premiums down, the number of patients who inadvertently received out-of-network care has jumped at hospitals, particularly with regard to contracted physicians.

8. Payers have sued providers for 'excessive' out-of-network fees. Aetna has sued a half dozen out-of-network physicians in recent years, alleging gross over charging for medical services. In 2014 Aetna sued a physician at Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch, N.J., a hospital within Aetna's network, who did not notify a patient he would not accept Aetna's discounted reimbursement rate, according to the lawsuit. The physician charged Aetna $31,939 to treat abdominal pain in the patient. After Aetna paid the amount it deemed reasonable — $2,811, based on Medicare rates — the physician balance billed the patient for an additional $10,635.

9. Balance billing can occur even when a payer adjusts out-of-network emergency bills to in-network rates for patients. A patient recently accused Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., of balance billing his account for an out-of-network rate after the patient submitted in-network payment rates to Blue Cross Blue Shield. Owing to the medical emergency of his situation, Matthew Aitken said he received an in-network rate from Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina. However, Mr. Aitken alleged Duke proceeded to charge him for the remainder of the bill at the higher out-of-network rate, resulting in a bill nearly double that of Mr. Aitken's out-of-pocket limit.

10. Air ambulance billing disputes, complaints on the rise. In rural areas of the U.S. the high price for life-saving air ambulance flights has grabbed media attention as rural residents, faced with excessive balance billing, have turned to state and federal auditors for intervention. Those in rural areas often must rely on air ambulance flights in life-or-death situations in lieu of feasible ground transportation. Reimbursement rate disputes between payers and medical air transport companies have strapped patients with devastating medical bills. When Amy Thomson's newborn daughter was in heart failure, Ms. Thomson had to use an air ambulance service in rural Montana for transport to a more capable facility. At the time her insurance company, PacificSource, did not have an in-network air ambulance company near her family, reports Montana Public Radio. Ms. Thomson received a $43,000 balance bill from Airlift Northwest after PacificSource contributed a policy cap of $13,000.

11. Provider-based billing practices. Consumers have been increasingly vocal about surprise medical bills derived from provider-based billing practices. Provider-based billing allows a healthcare organization to bill patients for physician care in addition to a service charge for the patient's use of hospital facilities and equipment. In some cases, a patient may be responsible for the service bill if their insurance declines to pay or if the patient has a high deductible health plan. Large hospitals like Cleveland Clinic have faced increased scrutiny for provider-based billing practices. After paying a $30 copayment for in-network care with a Cleveland Clinic chiropractor, Julie Beinhardt reported receiving a balance bill of $3,000 for provider-based service fees her insurance plan refused to cover.

12. President Barack Obama signed legislation against provider-based billing. Last year, President Obama signed legislation outlawing provider-based billing at off-campus outpatient facilities. The legislation does not apply to existing outpatient centers that already engage in the practice, however.

13. The president's 2017 budget proposal includes a provision to eliminate surprise medical bills. Although details are minimal, the president's 2017 budget proposal includes a provision to eliminate balance billing privately insured patients. The administration would address the issue by requiring physicians who regularly provide services in hospitals to accept in-network rates for service reimbursement, even if they aren't in the insurer's network.

14. About a quarter of U.S. states have laws that protect consumers from out-of-network medical bills incurred by emergency care. According to a study from Kaiser Family Foundation, 24 states have implemented laws that restrict providers from balance billing in emergency care situations, including California, Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, among others.

15. More states are proposing independent dispute resolution between payers and providers in balance billing cases. Independent dispute resolution establishes a legal space in which providers and health insurers can settle disagreements regarding balance billing without involving the patient. The states of Illinois and New Yorkhave arbitration methods in place, and Florida, Washington and Pennsylvania are currently considering a similar resolution methods.

16. New York has some of the strongest consumer protection laws. Under New York law, consumers are generally protected from owing more than their in-network copayment, coinsurance or deductible on bills they receive for out-of-network emergency services. Patients can complete an assignment of benefits form that absolves them of financial responsibility and allows the provider to pursue payment from the health plan in balance billing disputes.

17. Florida state legislature is currently embroiled in a fight to pass balance billing laws. Legislation to outlaw balance billing in Florida has continued to creep through the state legislature since last fall. Introduced in both the house and senate, the bills have sparked conflicting and outspoken opinions from patients, payers, hospitals and physicians. Hospitals have largely denounced the bill, blaming balance billing disputes on payers that demand allegedly unsustainable reimbursement rates, reports Sunshine State News.  

18. The "End Surprise Billing Act". Federal lawmakers are making moves to outlaw balance billing nationally. Co-sponsored by 25 lawmakers, the End Surprise Billing Act would protect patients from balance billing who went to in-network facilities for emergency services, reports Consumerist. In non-emergency cases, it would require providers to notify patients within 24 hours if an out-of-network specialist will be involved in an episode of care.

19. Consumers don't know how to navigate the legal waters. According to a Consumer Union report, 57 percent of patients who encountered balance billing from contracted physicians within the last two years paid in full because they didn't know their rights to fight the bills. An overwhelming majority (87 percent) did not know which agency or department in their state government is tasked with handling complaints about health insurance. "So many times, people just give up [in surprise billing disputes]," Elisabeth Benjamin, vice president of health initiatives with Community Service Society of New York, told NPR.

20. The New York Times dedicated a series to consumer encounters with surprise healthcare bills. Elisabeth Rosenthal's series in The New York Times entitled Paying Til it Hurts examined the personal and financial implications of excessive, unexpected medical costs on Americans, their families and their healthcare consumption. Ms. Rosenthal's installments often feature individuals with unaffordable balance bills like Peter Drier, who was served a $117,000 balance bill for an out-of-network physician's assistant he never knew was present during surgery.

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