by Artemio Muniz
Last month, Texas became the latest state to offer relief to patients slammed with unexpected medical expenses – a practice known as “surprise billing.”
This new law will protect some patients, but not all – only about 40% of Texans have a health plan regulated by the state. For others regulated by the federal government, Congress is working on it, having released several legislative proposals to curb surprise billing. One thing is already clear: Conservatives can’t sit on the sidelines in this debate because Democrats are already trying to use the opportunity to advance their view of socialized medicine.
Ending the practice of surprise billing is one of the few policy goals that both sides can support. But, like most of the problems Washington gets involved with, there is a right way and a wrong way to go about fixing it. First and foremost, the final legislation must protect patients and remove them from the middle of disputes between doctors and insurers. It should not be a vehicle for greater government involvement and price fixing that will hurt quality of care and make it harder for patients to see their doctors.
So what causes surprise billing? When someone goes to the emergency room with a heart attack, stroke, serious injury, or other medical emergency, getting the patient in the hands of medical professionals can be the difference between life and death. Emergency room doctors and nurses are professionally obligated to treat every patient, regardless of their insurance plan.
But if patients visit an out-of-network hospital, get treated by out-of-network doctors, or have tests performed by out-of-network specialists, and their insurance company refuses to pay the out-of-network charges, those patients can find themselves on the receiving end of a massive medical bill. In these circumstances, patients have little say in where they are treated and which doctors they see but are punished by insurance companies for having a medical emergency.
Surprise medical billing has many root causes, including narrow insurance networks, denied coverage, and high deductibles. In the end, patients pay costly insurance premiums every month, only to discover their plans fail to protect them from the cost of care, particularly in emergencies. When insurers and doctors fail to agree on reimbursement for services provided, the patient is stuck in the middle – and stuck with the bill.
Some lawmakers, like Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone, have already proposed legislation that purports to end surprise billing through government rate setting. This approach would be damaging for our healthcare system and counterproductive to the idea of making sure patients can see doctors when they need to. Rate setting is essentially government price fixing, capping the amount that doctors can charge for medical care. Not only does this fail to take into account the role insurance companies play in shrinking networks and denying payments, it would put many doctors out of business. Rate setting would be catastrophic for rural areas, which are already experiencing doctor shortages.
Some proposals are attempting to pass off the idea of capping reimbursements at a median in-network rate in order to bring Republicans along. This is billed as a “market-driven” solution when, in reality, it is just another way to artificially set prices for healthcare without addressing the role insurance companies play in causing surprise billing. Rate setting is rate setting by any name, and it gives insurers incredible leverage with in- and out-of-network providers. This approach would still shrink networks and make it harder for patients to receive the care they need.
A better path to protect patients and end surprise billing would be through an independent dispute resolution (IDR). (This is the path Texas took in its own recent state legislation.) Unlike price fixing schemes and rate-setting proposals, IDR would prevent further government interference in the economics of healthcare. IDR is essentially an arbitration process overseen by a neutral healthcare expert. It resolves billing disputes before they ever reach the patient.
This model has already reduced the frequency of surprise billing while lowering the cost of emergency care in a handful of states (New York has handled nearly 2,000 cases in a couple of years under this system). On the other hand, rate setting has been tried in California and has failed to address the underlying problems behind surprise billing. An arbitration system, combined with requirements for insurance companies to maintain adequate networks that actually allow patients to find a doctor who is covered by their plan, is far more favorable than a government-driven concept that fails to account for basic economics.
Surprise billing can have disastrous consequences for patients and President Trump should be applauded for tackling the problem head-on. But we must be skeptical of any proposal that caps rates and opens the door for Democrats to further embrace socialized medicine. Conservatives must oppose rate setting — and fix surprise billing with policies that protect patients and preserve their ability to see a doctor.
About Artemio Muniz:
The Wall Street Journal called Artemio “Temo” Muniz “part salesman for the GOP and part agitator within it.” Muniz is co-founder and chairman of the Texas Federation of Hispanic Republicans, Outreach Committee chairman for the Young Republican National Federation and board member of the Center for Latino-Jewish Relations.