No more surprises: Congress and patients alike sick of surprise billing

headshot of NCL Health Policy intern Alexa

By NCL Health Policy intern Alexa Beeson

This July, the House Energy and Commerce’s Health Subcommittee passed the No Surprises Act (H.R. 3630) to protect patients from surprise billing. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee also passed its companion to address surprise billing, the Lower Health Care Costs Act (S.1895). These bills were being considered after a press conference at which President Trump called for reform in surprise billing.

Stakeholder witnesses at the House hearing this June on H.R. 3630 included patient, provider, and insurance payer groups. Reimbursement models were discussed at length, but the unifying theme was that patients should be held harmless in surprise billing situations.

Surprise billing happens mostly in a small subsect of out-of-network providers; the patient has no idea about who’s in or out of network. Some professionals are out-of-network technicians subcontracted by an in-network facility, such as a last-minute anesthesiologist switch for a surgery, or any other non-disclosed provider. To get reimbursed for their services, providers send a bill to the patient for whatever wasn’t covered by the insurance company.

Surprise billing also occurred among patients who should receive reduced prices for care. Johns Hopkins Hospital filed suit on more than 2,400 patients in the last decade, collecting the equivalent of 0.03 percent of its operating revenue. Some of these patients were never told about their right to charity care, and many who qualify never received a discounted rate. These bill collections are inconsequential for Johns Hopkins but could bankrupt a patient.

Legislation to address balance or surprise bills will protect patients, ensuring they will only have to pay in-network rates for out-of-network emergency care. This will help patients avoid bills that can set them back, sometimes, hundreds of thousands of dollars. Although surprise bills only come from a small portion of providers, 1 in 7 insured adults will receive a surprise medical bill from an in-network hospital. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that 70 percent of such patients were not aware that the provider was out-of-network when they received the care.

Panelist Sonji Wilkes, a patient advocate, presented testimony about her struggle with a surprise bill sent after the birth of her son, who was diagnosed with hemophilia. That child was treated by a charitable out-of-network hematologist who did not charge them for her services. However, the NICU that observed the boy was subcontracted to a third-party provider. This meant that the NICU was out-of-network. The Wilkes were sent a $50,000 bill by the hospital that still haunts them 15 years later.

Thomas Nickels, the executive vice president of the American Hospitals Association, claimed that fixed reimbursement rates, such as a median benchmark or percentage of the Medicaid reimbursement value, would disincentivize insurers from maintaining adequate provider networks. Nickels supported the Alternative Dispute Resolutions method, which involves baseball-style arbitration where providers and payers settle on reimbursement value on a case-by-case basis.

Jeanette Thornton, a senior vice president at America’s Health Insurance Plans, argued that the New York model of baseball-style arbitration would create immense clerical burden, resulting in lost time and greater administrative costs. She argued the arbitration reimbursement model would raise costs for patients in the end. Instead, she advocated for the government-dictated fixed reimbursement rates.

Both versions of the bill call for a benchmark to resolve payments between insurance plans and out-of-network providers. This benchmark says health plans would reimburse providers with the median in-network rate already contracted within specific geographic areas. The House bill contains binding arbitration as a fallback in case either the provider or payer decide the payment was an unfair price.

The National Consumers League supports Congress’ tackling of this issue of surprise or balance billing. NCL has taken no position on how these bills are settled between the payer and provider, as long as patients are protected from outrageously expensive bills they can never hope to pay and were never anticipating. In addition, medical debt is the greatest contributor to consumers declaring bankruptcy, and balance billing is a contributor to that troubling consumer issue. The bottom line is that a bill for medical services should never cause bankruptcy, and a patient should never have to choose between medical treatment and food or housing. We are hopeful this issue will be resolved during this Congressional session.

Alexa is a student at Washington University in St. Louis where she studies Classics and Anthropology and concentrates in global health and the environment. She expects to graduate in May of 2020

NCL statement on White House pathway for drug importation

August 2, 2019

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org, (412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

Washington, DC—As the nation’s pioneer consumer organization, the National Consumers League (NCL) strongly supports consumer access to safe, effective, and affordable prescription drugs. The recent announcement by the White House to open a pathway for importation of drugs from outside of the United States seems unworkable and poses safety and purity challenges.

Six years ago, the U.S. government enacted a safe system to “track and trace” drugs sold to U.S. consumers through the Drug Supply Chain Security Act. The law required, that by 2023, all drugs sold to U.S. consumers must have both a product identifier and a unique package code to allow Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and any buyer in the supply chain to obtain a comprehensive history of where the drug was manufactured and packaged. This secure supply chain system best ensures consumers are receiving medications that are not counterfeit or substandard.

“The recent announcement by the White House ignores the Drug Supply Chain Security Act and undermines the security of the U.S. pharmaceutical supply chain,” said Sally Greenberg, NCL executive director. “This new pathway for importation could easily lead to counterfeit or substandard drugs finding their way to consumer’s medicine cabinets, thus putting patient health and safety at risk.”

In addition to the safety risks posed by this new policy announcement, there are no guarantees that it will save consumers money. The proposal opens the door for states, pharmacies, and distributors to obtain the medications outside of U.S. borders, but it does not require that any cost savings from obtaining those “lower-priced” medications be passed on to consumers. So, even if safety concerns could be addressed, it is not clear that there will be any direct cost savings benefit to consumers.

The threat to public health is real. Counterfeit medications may contain the wrong active ingredient, the wrong amount of the active ingredient, no active ingredient, harmful ingredients, or even poisons such as mercury, road tar, or antifreeze. Counterfeit medications made with deadly ingredients have been found in more than 40 states across America, posing a significant public health threat.

“Allowing importation will only serve to exacerbate the challenge of preventing counterfeit drugs from reaching American patients,” said Greenberg.

NCL continues to advocate for more responsible strategies to ensure the affordability and accessibility of safe and effective prescription drugs.

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About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

Oral argument for ACA case will determine the fate of millions

Nissa ShaffiOn Tuesday, July 9, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit will hear oral arguments that will determine whether or not the Affordable Care Act (ACA) may be overturned. Throughout the course of its life, the ACA has been under the specter of possible repeal. While there have been piecemeal attempts to strike down the legislation over time, none have been as concerning as the most recent Texas v. United States case, which argues that since the individual mandate is no longer enforced, ACA  would be unconstitutional.

The individual mandate requires that most people maintain a minimum level of health insurance or be subject a financial penalty. In 2017 however, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), set the individual mandate to $0 as of 2019. As a result of this ruling, the Texas v. United States case was filed by 20 Republican state attorneys general and governors. The plaintiffs argue that the ruling rendered the individual mandate futile, as it no longer produces revenue for the federal government, and since Congress declared the individual mandate to be “essential” when enacting the ACA, this would now make the entire law invalid.

In an ideal situation, the court would maintain the ACA as it exists today, absent the individual mandate. If the ACA is repealed along with the protections that come with it, close to 20 million people would lose their health coverage. Those affected will include mostly low-income adults and children with chronic or pre-existing conditions, dependent adult children ages 26 and younger, Medicare and Medicaid enrollees, employer and employee groups, and more.

Repealing the ACA would jeopardize Medicaid expansion, further burdening uncompensated care and provider reimbursement. In addition, repealing the ACA would increase health care costs among the uninsured by $50.2 billion, result in more than 9 million people losing federal subsidies to purchase health insurance via the marketplace, and would endanger consumers’ ability to obtain essential health benefits.

California’s Attorney General, Xavier Beccerra, is leading a coalition of 21 Democratic attorneys general who have intervened to defend the ACA. Advocates interested in joining these efforts can contact izzy@xavierbecerra.com – please do so and sign the petition by July 14. In addition, organizations can participate in the TXvUS Tweetstorm to express their concerns regarding this case, using the hashtags #TXvUS and #WhatsAtStake, on July 9th at 2 pm EST/ 11 am PST.

NCL is a zealous supporter of the ACA and notes that it is still the law of the land. We are following the developments of this case closely and will continue to fight for access to affordable healthcare for all Americans. For more information on developments of this case, please click here.

FDA acts to protect women’s health

Nissa Shaffi

Last April, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on all sales of pelvic surgical mesh products after determining that the manufacturers, Boston Scientific and Coloplast, failed to “demonstrate [a] reasonable assurance of safety and effectiveness.”

The ban comes on the heels of a 2016 reclassification of the product by the FDA, resulting in a class III (high-risk) designation. As a result, the manufacturers were required to undergo meticulous review and obtain premarket approval by the FDA in order to continue sales of their products in the United States.

A surgical mesh is a medical device used to treat urogynecological or pelvic organ issues. Most commonly, surgical mesh has been used to treat pelvic organ prolapse (POP). POP is a type of pelvic floor disorder that occurs when the muscles and tissues supporting pelvic organs become weakened–often resulting in urinary incontinence typically seen as a result of childbirth or advanced age.

A transvaginal surgical mesh is intended to provide additional support to the pelvic floor muscles to reinforce a weakened vaginal wall for treatment of POP. A urethral sling surgical mesh is supposed to provide support to the urethra or bladder to address urinary incontinence. Surgical mesh comes in two forms: synthetic and animal derived. Synthetic surgical mesh remains in the body indefinitely and acts as a permanent implant. Animal derived mesh, made from the intestine or skin of pig or cow, are absorbable and lose durability over time.

The most frequent complications from these devices include vaginal scarring, mesh erosion, increased risk of infection, and painful urination. Nearly 10 million women worldwide have received mesh implants, with about 10 to 15 percent of these women suffering from complications. Following the ban, there are currently no FDA-approved pelvic surgical mesh products available for sale in the United States.

The FDA advises that women who have already received a transvaginal mesh for the surgical repair of POP should continue their routine follow-up care with their provider and need not take any additional action if they are satisfied with their procedure. Patients should notify their provider if they experience any adverse reactions, such as bleeding or pain, following the procedure.

Given the grave injury these devices have caused in women patients, the National Consumers League questions how they ever received FDA approval in the first place. Nevertheless, banning the devices now is better than keeping them on the market. We must expect better from our healthcare regulators. Thankfully, we now have stronger safety standards that have brought an immediate halt to the sale of these unsafe medical devices.

To read the FDA’s full report on transvaginal mesh, click here.

NCL Health Policy Intern Alexa Beeson contributed to this blog.