In its Fiscal Year 2017 Private Insurance Legislative Proposals, President Obama’s Budget contains a provision seeking to “eliminate surprise out-of-network healthcare charges for privately insured patients.” Described as an attempt to “promote transparency on price, cost, and billing for consumers,” this measure requires hospitals and physicians to collaborate so that patients receiving treatment at in-network facilities do not face unexpected charges from out-of-network practitioners. This provision could have far-reaching effects, potentially impacting enrollees in traditional commercial plans, Exchange plans and government plans (such as Medicare Advantage plans).

A surprise bill situation arises when patients incur unexpected, out-of-network charges when receiving health care services at an “in-network” or “participating” hospital. For example, a surprise bill may arise from a situation where certain physicians (e.g., anesthesiologists or emergency room physicians) who provide services to the patient during an episode of care are not participating with a health plan, even if other providers who see the patient and the hospital itself are participating. In such scenarios, the non-participating providers may charge patients for both cost sharing and any unpaid balances for those specific services, as if the patient had gone to an “out-of-network” or “non-participating” provider.

The proposal in the Budget would change that and require hospitals and physicians to “work together to ensure that patients receiving treatment at in-network facilities do not face unexpected out-of-network charges from out-of-network practitioners that cannot be avoided by the patient.” This would be accomplished by requiring hospitals to take “reasonable steps” to match patients with providers who are considered in-network for the patient’s plan. Also, all physicians who regularly provide services in hospitals would be required to accept the contracted, in-network rate as payment-in-full, even though no actual contract is in place. Thus, in situations where a hospital failed to match a patient to an in-network provider, safeguards would still be in place to protect the patient from surprise out-of-network charges. How such amount would be calculated and enforced is not yet clear at this stage.

On a state level, legislation has been passed that affords patients protections against surprise bills in California, Texas, Florida, Illinois, Colorado, Maryland, West Virginia and New Jersey, but the state with the most rigorous protections is New York. A New York law went into effect in March 2015, protecting patients from surprise bills when services are performed by a non-participating doctor at a participating hospital or ambulatory surgical center or when a participating doctor refers an insured patient to a non-participating provider (the law also protects consumers from bills for emergency services).

Many particulars regarding the proposal in the Budget remain unclear, as limited information was presented around the proposed provision. Besides the need for legislative action, specific questions exist around what standards would be used for calculating new payment rates, implementation and enforcement mechanisms, provider appeal and dispute resolution processes, managed care contracting implications, state versus federal jurisdictional issues and impacts on plan premium pricing. However, what is clear is that the federal government has begun to follow states’ leads in introducing protections for patients from unforeseen medical expenses.