By: Jon Jablon, Esq.
When working with air ambulance providers to discuss appropriate pricing, it is common for providers to suggest that Medicare rates are inappropriate due to Medicare’s habitual underpayment air ambulance providers. In this manner, when a payor suggests payment at a percentage of Medicare, many providers demand more, suggesting that the Medicare-based payment is unreasonably low, and therefore payment derived from that is low as well.
In apparent agreement with that thought, The 115th Congress has introduced HR3378. Short-titled the “Ensuring Access to Air Ambulance Services Act of 2017,” this bill is designed primarily to alter the Medicare reimbursement to air ambulance providers. The bill apparently contemplates that air ambulance providers are being underpaid by Medicare, because starting in 2018 the Medicare base rate will increase by 12%, prior to any cost data being reported by those providers. For 2019 and 2020, that increase will jump to 20%. Beginning in 2019, air ambulance providers are required to report a comprehensive set of cost data elements, and beginning in 2020, that reporting includes quality data as well. As of 2024, the bill also creates a “value-based purchasing program,” which entails giving each air ambulance provider a performance score and increasing or decreasing payments based on that. Reported cost data will eventually (2021) be used to recalculate the base rate of air ambulance services.
The bill in its current form specifies that the data disclosures will eventually be made public, which can be useful for self-funded plans to be able to benchmark claims. Often health plans have only the provider’s billed charge and a Medicare rate to work with when determining payment, but if cost data is publicized, that creates new benchmarking possibilities.
So, if this bill passes, what will it mean for you? If Medicare rates are irrelevant to you or your health plans, then this likely means very little for you – but if you or a client are one of the thousands of health plans that consider Medicare rates when determining payment for air ambulance services, then it means your Medicare calculations (and therefore payments to air ambulance providers) will increase a bit for 2018, and a bit more for 2019 and 2020. Come 2021, they may increase or decrease again based on cost data, and come 2024, they may increase or decrease yet again based on performance indicators. In other words: expect higher payments in 2018, another increase for the following two years, and then unpredictable increases or decreases from there.
Although it may seem intuitive to assume that the government’s admission that these providers are underpaid by Medicare will lead to an increase in charges across the board, my assumption is that charges billed to self-funded payors will not increase as a result of this bill, even if it becomes law. Many air ambulance providers already justify their billing by citing operating costs, and this new bill does nothing to change those costs. An air ambulance provider would be hard-pressed to use either the assumptions or effects of this bill to justify increasing charges across the board.
The bill is still in its infancy, so it is likely that if it ultimately becomes law, it will have been changed quite a bit in the process; we’ll just have to wait and see what happens with this one.