The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

In health care, 'reference pricing' could end up costing unwary consumers thousands of dollars

  • Print

WASHINGTON - You just might want to pay attention to the latest health insurance jargon. It could mean thousands of dollars out of your pocket.

The Obama administration has given the go-ahead for a new cost-control strategy called "reference pricing." It lets insurers and employers put a dollar limit on what health plans pay for some expensive procedures, such as knee and hip replacements.

Some experts worry that patients could be surprised with big medical bills they must pay themselves, undercutting financial protections in the new health care law. That would happen if patients picked a more expensive hospital — even if it's part of the insurer's network.

The administration's decision affects most job-based plans as well as the new insurance exchanges.

Other experts say reference pricing will help check rising premiums.

A recent policy ruling from the administration went to unusual lengths to acknowledge concerns, saying the pricing strategy "may be a subterfuge" for "otherwise prohibited limitations on coverage."

Nonetheless, the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services said reference pricing could continue. Plans must use a "reasonable method" to ensure "adequate access to quality providers." Regulators asked for public comment, saying they may publish additional guidance in the future.

HHS spokeswoman Erin Shields Britt said in a statement that the administration is monitoring the effects of reference pricing on access to quality services and will work to ensure that financial protections for consumers are not undermined.

One way the new approach is different is that it sets a dollar limit on what the health plan will pay for a given procedure. Most insurance now pays a percentage of costs, and those costs themselves can vary from hospital to hospital. Now if you pick a more expensive hospital, the insurance still pays the same percentage.

The new strategy works like this:

Your health insurance plan slaps a dollar limit on what it will pay for certain procedures, for example, hospital charges associated with knee and hip replacement operations. That's called the reference price.

Say the limit is $30,000. The plan offers you a choice of hospitals within its provider network. If you pick one that charges $40,000, you would owe $10,000 to the hospital plus your regular cost-sharing for the $30,000 that your plan covers.

The extra $10,000 is treated like an out-of-network expense, and it doesn't count toward your plan's annual limit on out-of-pocket costs.

That's crucial because under the health care law, most plans have to pick up the entire cost of care after a patient hits the annual out-of-pocket limit, currently $6,350 for single coverage and $12,700 for a family plan. Before the May 2 administration ruling, it was unclear whether reference pricing violated this key financial protection for consumers.

Some experts are concerned.

"The problem ... from the patient's perspective is that at the end of the day, that is who gets left holding the bag," said Karen Pollitz of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.

Previously a top consumer protection regulator in the Obama administration, Pollitz said the administration ruling amounts to a substantial change for consumers.

It's not on the radar yet for most people, but the new approach is gaining ground. The Mercer benefits consulting firm said 12 per cent of the largest employers were using reference pricing last year, nearly double the 7 per cent in 2012.

It's been pioneered in California by CalPERS, a giant agency that manages health and retirement benefits for public employees.

CalPERS started with knee and hip replacements in 2011, steering patients to hospitals that had been vetted for quality and charged $30,000 or less.

Ann Boynton, the agency's health benefits director, said the program has been a success, with patients able to choose from about 50 hospitals.

"People do not feel like we went to bargain-basement hospitals where the quality is not good," she said. "The quality is the same, and in some instances, better."

Economist James C. Robinson of the University of California at Berkeley studied the CalPERS experiment and found not only that many patients shifted to lower-cost hospitals, saving money, but that expensive hospitals responded by cutting their prices.

Although insurers don't appear to be using reference pricing on the new health exchanges, Robinson said he thinks it's only a matter of time.

However, the strategy appears to be suitable only for a subset of medical care: procedures and tests that are frequently performed, where the prices charged vary widely but the quality of results generally does not. In addition to knee and hip replacements, that could include such procedures as MRIs and other imaging tests, cataract surgery and colonoscopies.

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Key of Bart - The Floodway Connection

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A nesting goose sits on the roof of GoodLife Fitness at 143 Nature Way near Kenaston as the morning sun comes up Wednesday morning- See Bryksa’s Goose a Day Photo- Day 07- Web crop-May 09, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • Water lilys are reflected in the pond at the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden Tuesday afternoon. Standup photo. Sept 11,  2012 (Ruth Bonneville/Winnipeg Free Press)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Which of Manitoba's new landlord-tenant rules are you looking forward to most?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google