A recent article by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) and National Public Radio (NPR) raised the prospect that patients may still see surprise medical bills despite the enactment of the No Surprises Act (NSA).
The article, entitled A Surprise-Billing Law Loophole? Her Pregnancy Led to a Six-Figure Hospital Bill, reports the story of a woman who was admitted for an extended inpatient hospital stay and follow-up postpartum procedure after experiencing a serious pregnancy complication. According to the article, the plan initially determined that the hospital was a nonparticipating provider, but the specialty clinic at which she was treated was in the carrier’s network. (The clinic’s doctors admitted patients only to the nonparticipating provider hospital.) The result was some $135,000 in uncovered expenses.
There are two relevant statutory provisions at play here:
- The NSA provides protections against surprise medical bills for, among other things, nonemergency services furnished by nonparticipating providers with respect to a visit to a participating healthcare facility.
- The Affordable Care Act (ACA) imposes limits on annual cost sharing, which includes deductibles, coinsurance, copayments or similar charges. Cost sharing does not, however, include balance billing amounts for non-network providers.
A great deal is riding on whether facilities and providers are participating or nonparticipating for NSA purposes, and whether providers are in or out of network for ACA purposes. If it is possible for a nonparticipating facility to have a participating provider, then there would seem to be a gap in the NSA’s protections. In the government’s view, this is not possible, so there is no gap.
The US Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and the Treasury (the Departments) weighed in on the issue in Q&As 1 and 2 of recently issued FAQs Part 60. According to the Departments, either:
- The balance billing and cost-sharing protections under the NSA will apply because the items and services are furnished by a nonparticipating provider, emergency facility or provider of air ambulance services; or
- The ACA limits will apply because the items or services are furnished by an in-network provider or provider of air ambulance services.
Under no circumstance, however, can a facility be a “participating” provider for NSA purposes and at the same time claim that they are not subject to the ACA out-or-pocket limits on in-network cost sharing.
The KFF/NPR article does not report the details about the underlying contractual arrangements. This might have been a health maintenance organization or other network-related plan, for example. The article does report that the balance bill was reversed, although no rationale is provided. The lesson here, according to the Departments, is that a plan or carrier cannot be in network for one purpose and out of network for other purposes to evade the surprise billing rules.