1 in 5 patients get surprise bill after elective surgery. How costly was it?

surgeons doctors
In elective surgeries, even when patients had in-network surgeons and facilities, 20% of the time they faced surprise medical bills, accoridng to a JAMA study. (Pixabay)

Editor's note: Comments from the American Medical Association were added to the original article.

The patients underwent elective surgery with primary surgeons and in facilities that were in their private insurer’s network. Yet, one in five got a surprise bill after their procedure for out-of-network services, according to a new study.

The patients were left with an average potential balance of $2,011, according to the JAMA study released today.

As politicians in Washington look at how to address the problem of surprise bills, researchers examined claims data from a large health insurer to examine how often patients unexpectedly received out-of-network bills after having in-network elective surgery. In 20% of the surgeries, patients received out-of-network charges, the study found.

Members of Congress have been grappling with ways to end surprise medical bills. The House Ways & Means Committee on Friday released largely provider-friendly legislation as a bid to end an impasse over how to handle surprise billing with a proposal to use a "mediation" process to handle disputes.

In the study, most commonly, the out-of-network bills occurred when patients received care from anesthesiologists and surgical assistants who were not part of their insurance network, which happened in 37% of the cases where patients received a surprise bill, the study found.

RELATED: Lawmakers face distractions on Iran, impeachment in bid to get deal on surprise billing

In cases where a surgical assistant was not in the insurance network, patients faced an average potential bill of $3,633. With out-of-network bills that resulted from the anesthesiologist being out of the patient’s network, the average potential bill was $1,219, the study found.

The analysis included almost 350,000 commercially insured patients who underwent one of seven common elective surgeries at in-network facilities with in-network primary surgeons between 2012 and 2017. Researchers said one limitation of their study was that the claims data came from only on insurer.

Patients had a greater risk of receiving an out-of-network bill when they were members of a health insurance exchange plan. Risks were also significantly higher when there were surgical complications, the study found.

In an accompanying editorial, JAMA editors said it’s time to stop surprise medical bills, which they described as “both common and potentially financially devastating.”

RELATED: Network matching, benchmarking remain major sticking points to surprise billing solutions

“Such billing practices are particularly pernicious because patients usually have no knowledge that they will occur, and no way to avoid them,” wrote Karen E. Joynt Maddox, M.D., of the Washington University School of Medicine and associate editor of JAMA, and Edward Livingston, M.D., deputy editor at JAMA.

It’s up to both clinicians and policymakers to act to end surprise billing, they said, arguing that surgeons have an ethical responsibility to speak out.

“When feasible, surgeons should ensure that all the personnel involved in the care team that they are leading accept the same insurance plans and should consider refusing to work in facilities that allow surprise billing,” they wrote.

The American Medical Association, the country’s largest physician organization, Tuesday came out in support of the bipartisan efforts of the House Ways and Means Committee to craft legislation to protect patients from surprise medical bills.

The legislation creates a two-step process for resolving disputes over reimbursement, first through a 30-day negotiation process that encourages parties to resolve their differences before using a mediation process administered by a third party.

“We support the underlying mechanism for resolving these disputes, including the eligibility of all disputed claims for negotiation and mediation. We also appreciate that the mediator must consider a wide range of supporting information submitted by physicians in rendering a final determination,” said Patrice A. Harris, M.D., AMA president, in a statement.

Harris said the AMA plans to work with the committee and others to refine the legislation so it is fair to everyone involved.

While hospitals and physicians support the legislation, payers have pushed to link out-of-network payments to a benchmark rate, rather than the arbitration process favored by providers.

chart on surprise medical bills

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