Obama, Clinton and the New Public Option

The era of Democratic silence on strengthening and improving the Affordable Care Act is officially over.  President Barack Obama’s tour de force review of the ACA’s successes in the new Journal of the American Medical Association is also important for his identification of key ACA improvements needed on insurance affordability, Medicaid, prescription drug prices and more. I note his call for a “public option” health plan to spur competition in states with low numbers of health insurers participating in state ACA exchanges/marketplaces:

“…(I)n the original debate over health reform, Congress considered and I supported including a Medicare-like public plan. … Now, based on experience with the ACA, I think Congress should revisit a public plan to compete alongside private insurers in areas of the country where competition is limited. Adding a public plan in such areas would strengthen the Marketplace approach, giving consumers more affordable options while also creating savings for the federal government.”

Serendipitously, Sect. Hillary Clinton is now actively promoting the public option in her White House run, partially to woo backers of her Democratic opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT), and also because she has supported this idea since 2008:

“To make immediate progress toward that goal, Hillary will work with interested governors, using current flexibility under the Affordable Care Act, to empower states to establish a public option choice.”

What does the “public option” mean and why now? Continue reading “Obama, Clinton and the New Public Option”

Behind the Turnaround at the MA Health Connector

(This article was just published in the Spring Issue of Commonwealth magazine.)

It’s 11:59 PM on October 31, 2015, about 20 nervous state officials and contractors hunched around computer terminals in a non-descript office in the Charles F. Hurley Building near Beacon Hill. Among them was Louis Gutierrez, executive director of the Massachusetts Health Connector, appointed the previous February by newly inaugurated Gov. Charlie Baker. The launch of the third open enrollment since the 2013 implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA) was less than a minute away with lots on the line. Would months of hard preparation avoid another website calamity that could jeopardize health insurance for hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts residents.

As the website opened at midnight and kept humming without a hitch throughout the night and following days, sighs of relief were heard across the Commonwealth as a major governmental embarrassment was averted. By early February 2016, 201,000 state

Guttierez
Louis Gutierrez

residents had successfully enrolled in plans for 2016, including 36,000 new members. Today, the Connector is a marquee success for the still-youngish Baker administration — an ironic twist for a Republican governor who was never a fan of the ACA, Barack Obama’s marquee presidential achievement. Continue reading “Behind the Turnaround at the MA Health Connector”

Diagnosing Vermont’s Single Payer Crash

I have a commentary in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine on “the demise of Vermont’s single payer plan.” Beyond what’s in the article, here are some points of note.

First, as some of ardent single payer proponents note, the plan was never “pure” single payer because VT Gov. Peter Shumlin never envisioned including Medicare in the system.  So it would have been single payer — except for Medicare and other federal programs that would have been challenging to include.  Though including Medicare in the original plan would, quite likely, have been politically suicidal, the point is well taken.

VermontSP

Second, Vermont’s move in this direction in 2011 was the most exciting and important pro-single payer development in a generation at least.  A state chief executive with a strongly Democratic legislature in a small, progressive and compact state — one could hardly imagine a more auspicious opportunity.  Add to that the disappointment among so many Democrats in 2010 that the Affordable Care Act did not go further.  I admit to being caught up in the exuberant enthusiasm. Continue reading “Diagnosing Vermont’s Single Payer Crash”

Oh Brother! Those Awful Out-of-Network Charges!

One of the reasons I like this new site is because I can easily bring in other voices.  And why not start close to home.  May I present … my big brother.  Joseph P McDonagh — yes, he changed the spelling of his last name to the traditional Irish version figuring the rest of us would follow.  Guess again!

Joe is a life and health insurance agent (aka: broker) in the state of Connecticut.  He also 1 joe mcdhappens to be a progressive Democrat (former chair of the Hamden Democratic Town Committee).  Because there are so few liberal Democrat insurance brokers, it’s actually a pretty good marketing asset in a state with lots and lots of liberal Democrats.  Even more rare in the broker community, Joe is a supporter of the Affordable Care Act and a friend of the Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut.  Today he published a blog post on the Foundation’s website and I think you might appreciate reading it because it’s about a growing problem all over the U.S. that seems to be getting worse.  Let me know what you think:

Surprise Out-of-Network Charges Cost Us All

I see many types of bills as a health insurance agent, but I received one from a client last week that highlights a disturbing trend.  Unfortunately, it was the third bill of its type that I’ve seen in 2015.

The bill was from a physician assistant for $6,200.  The physician assistant didn’t perform the surgery – obviously, a surgeon did that.  The physician assistant wasn’t known to my client; he had no idea who this person was until the bill arrived.  To top it off, the $6,200 bill was more than what the surgeon was paid.

The bill was so high because the physician assistant was billing separate from the facility, the surgeon, and the anesthesiologist. This is because the physician assistant was “out of network,” meaning they are not a participating provider with my client’s insurance company. This entitled them to bill my client for the full amount.

 

I am a veteran in the health insurance field. I work mainly with small employers with fewer than 50 employees. And especially for them, part of what I do includes helping to explain why they’re being billed for something. A major part of my job is calling the insurance company when a claim is denied and negotiating my client’s way through the confusion of 21st century health insurance.

This task keeps getting tougher.

A month ago, another client sent me an “explanation of benefits” (EOB) – the notoriously obtuse and unintelligible statement that an insurance company sends when a claim has been processed by an insurance company.  He, too, had been in the hospital for surgery.

The EOB showed a $2,400 bill for the anesthesiologist, of which the insurance company paid nothing because the anesthesiologist, a person my client hadn’t chosen and only met for the first time on the morning of the surgery, was also out of network.

A third client contacted me in January.  She had been to see her regular doctor for a routine annual exam, including blood tests.  She received a bill from the laboratory that performed the blood tests for over $2,800. That lab, like the physician assistant, like the anesthesiologist, is out of network. Do you see a trend?

When a bill is presented for out of network services to an insurance company, it is either denied outright if the insurance plan doesn’t cover out of network services, or it is paid at a significant discount.  However, unlike an in-network provider, the out of network provider can send a bill to the patient for the part of the bill that the insurance company won’t pay and demand full payment.

If you deliberately chose that out of network provider – maybe it was a highly recommended orthopedic surgeon, a chiropractor who was known to work magic, or a psychiatrist who doesn’t accept insurance – the full cost is rightfully on your shoulders.

But when the facility, the doctor, or the physician assistant wasn’t selected by you and is out of your control, why should you be held responsible for that cost?  You shouldn’t. And if you aren’t, it is a long and arduous process to get the bill settled.

Your insurance company’s denial must be appealed, a process that will typically take about a month.  It is your responsibility to file the appeal, not the out of network provider’s (who might, in the meantime, be sending your bill to a collection agency).  And when the bill is finally settled, the end result often is that the provider is reimbursed by your insurance company for the full amount billed.

Why?  Why should a physician assistant receive more in payment than the surgeon?  Why should an anesthesiologist receive four times what would have been paid if he was in network?  Why should an out of network laboratory receive ten times what would have been paid to an in-network lab?

They shouldn’t, but they often are.  And ultimately, although you won’t be paying that provider directly, we are all paying the costs for these unwarranted out of network expenses in higher premiums.

These three cases aren’t unusual.  What is unusual is that I am confronted with these sorts of problems more frequently these days.  Just as we are trying to gain control over health care costs with viable new ideas – patient-centered care, capitation payments replacing fee-for-service, etc. – these out of network provider costs threaten to undermine our efforts.

When an insured patient enters the hospital for an emergency, no one is required to ask if the physicians attending are in network.  Emergency services are rightly covered as though in-network, even if the providers are not.

But in the case of scheduled surgery, unless the patient has specifically requested the services of an out of network provider, no one in the operating room should be outside the network and certainly no one should be paid other than what is appropriate for the in-network care.

It’s not enough that my clients won’t have to pay these outrageous bills; their insurance company shouldn’t be paying them either.

The state legislature is partially addressing this issue via S.B. 808.