A proposed bill from state Sen. Kelly Hancock would allow mediation for balance bills resulting from care at freestanding emergency rooms. Khampha Bouaphanh Star-Telegram archives
A proposed bill from state Sen. Kelly Hancock would allow mediation for balance bills resulting from care at freestanding emergency rooms. Khampha Bouaphanh Star-Telegram archives

Teresa McUsic

Proposed bill targets ‘balance billing’ charges from ER visits

By Teresa McUsic

February 24, 2017 03:12 PM

A state mediation process for Texans to fight back against unexpected out-of-network charges on their emergency room bills is getting little use, but state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, is working to change that.

Last month, Hancock introduced Senate bill 507, which looks to expand the “balance billing” mediation program he set up through legislation in 2009.

“No Texan looks forward to visiting a surgical center or emergency room,” said Hancock, in a statement. “But when that happens, hidden charges and surprise bills should be the last thing on their mind.”

Balance billing occurs primarily in healthcare plans that are Preferred Provider Organizations (PPOs) and when patients are directly billed by an out-of-network provider for the remainder of a bill not covered by their insurance. This occurs when PPO patients go to an in-network ER, but later learn that some doctors and services like pathology or anesthesiology are not in the network, causing extra, out-of-network charges to be filed.

Help us deliver journalism that makes a difference in our community.

Our journalism takes a lot of time, effort, and hard work to produce. If you read and enjoy our journalism, please consider subscribing today.

The practice occurs much less frequently, if at all, with patients covered by HMOs, Medicare and Medicaid because of state and federal laws already in place to stop the practice, said Stacey Pogue, senior policy analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin.

The exposure is large, though. More than 3.6 million Texans carry either a PPO or the state employee retirement system plan, which is also susceptible to balance billing problems, Pogue said.

Based on Pogue’s analysis, an estimated 250,000 Texans in these plans will get a surprise, out-of-network medical bill in any two-year period.

At the same time, fewer than 4,000 Texans have used the mediation system, which began seven years ago, according to records from the Texas Department of Insurance, which runs the program.

When the mediation program is used, it is effective, however. To date, 92 percent of all mediation cases were settled before the formal mediation process begins with a simple phone call between the insurer and doctor, Pogue said.

Only eight percent of requests went onto the State Office of Administrative Hearings for mediation.

TDI data shows that in 2015 mediation saved Texas patients more than $1 million, despite the program’s low usage rate, Hancock’s office said.

There are many loopholes, however, some of which Hancock wants to close.

Among them, SB 507 calls for:

▪ Expanding the TDI mediation system to include all types of out-of-network providers treating patients at in-network hospitals and other facilities. Current law applies only to six types of physicians including ER physicians, radiologists, anesthesiologists, neonatologists, pathologists and assistant surgeons.

▪ Allowing mediation for emergency care balance bills at any healthcare facility, whether in or out of network, including freestanding ERs. Currently, the law only covers in-network or preferred facilities. Many of the 300 freestanding ERs in Texas, which have been popping up around the Metroplex, claim to accept “all insurance,” but do not always carry in-network contracts with the insurer, making them ripe for balance billing, Pogue warned.

▪ Requiring more disclosure by healthcare providers and other facilities by mandating the language “this is a balance bill that may be eligible for mediation” on each one.

▪ Expanding mediation protections to more than 250,000 Texans enrolled in the Teacher Retirement System (TRS-Care) and 430,000 enrolled in the self-funded TRS-ActiveCare program.

AARP and the Texas Association of Hospital Plans support the legislation.

An aide in Hancock’s office said the bill is in the Business & Commerce Committee, which Hancock chairs. Similar legislation is being proposed in the House.

Two previous bills, which began the mediation process and expanded it in 2011, were both passed with little opposition.

While Texas was the first in the nation to address this problem, it also is among the largest states to continue to have the problem, Pogue said.

In her study, Pogue found there are more than 300 hospitals in Texas that are in-network but have not a single ER doctor available who is in-network with at least one of the three major insurers studied (Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas, Humana and United Healthcare.)

Further, Pogue calculated the average percentage of dollars for emergency room physician services billed out-of-network at in-network hospitals per insurer, based on information posted by the insurer (a requirement of Hancock’s previous legislation). Blue Cross showed the lowest with 42 percent of dollars for ER physician services billed as out-of-network. Humana was higher at 51 percent and United Healthcare higher still at 70 percent.

While Hancock’s legislation is an improvement, some states have virtually eliminated the ability to balance bill, Pogue said.

In Florida, California, New York and Illinois, patients are responsible only for their deductible and co-payments whether the provider is in or out of network. Also, if there is a fight between the provider and the insurer in those states, the patient doesn’t have to get in the middle. The two parties can ask for dispute resolution, without the patient having to begin the process, Pogue said.

For more on how to use the state mediation balanced billing process, go to http://www.tdi.texas.gov/consumer/cpmmediation.html.