Phia Group Media


Phia Group Media

A Contract By Any Other Name

By: Jon Jablon, Esq.

As you may know, the regulators have been impressively sparse in their opinions of reference-based pricing (or RBP, for short). Courts have scarcely weighed in at all, and the DOL has published a few bits of guidance, some more helpful than others, but it’s still the wild west out there in the RBP space.

One of the central themes – and in fact one of the only themes – of prior DOL guidance has been that balance-billed amounts do not count toward a patient’s out-of-pocket maximum. That’s from way back in the ACA FAQ #18, published in January 2014. Then, in April 2016, the DOL clarified a bit. Question 7 of FAQ #31 (which we have previously webinarred about, and yes, that’s a word, as of right now) indicates that the previous guidance still holds true.

Well, sort of.

Yes, amounts balance-billed by out-of-network providers are still exempt from being counted toward a patient’s cost-sharing maximum, but the wording “out-of-network providers” apparently specifically implies that there are some in-network providers, according to the DOL. Many RBP plans have no in-network providers whatsoever; the result is that balance-billed amounts are counted toward the patient’s out-of-pocket if there are no “in-network” options. What does “in-network” mean, though, in this context?

At first blush, the concept seems to create a problem for RBP, since having “in-network” providers is antithetical to RBP. In most cases, however, RBP is not administered in a vacuum; usually, RBP is administered, at least in part, by a vendor, and that vendor generally has some processes in place for avoiding member balance-billing. The plan must somehow ensure that members are not balance-billed above their out-of-pocket limits, unless they had options and consciously chose not to utilize them.

For instance, if a plan is using RBP for out-of-network claims only – that is, accessing a primary network, but paying based on a reference price for anything falling outside that network – the plan could, in theory, allow any patients to be balance-billed for any amounts, if those patients have chosen to go out-of-network. That’s because the plan has established options for the patient to avoid balance-billing – but if the patient has chosen to not utilize those options, that’s the patient’s prerogative.

The problem arises, however, in the context of a plan that uses no network and has no contracted providers; if a provider balance-bills a patient above the out-of-pocket maximum when the patient had no choice but to be balance-billed, that’s when an employer could be in a state of noncompliance.

Greatly simplified, the regulators have specified that plans using reference-based pricing must provide patients some reasonable way to avoid being balance-billed. If all providers are non-contracted and will balance-bill, the plan is not permitted to sit idly by and allow the balance-billing to occur without doing anything about it. The plan will have no choice but to settle those claims with providers on the back-end. If, however, patients have “reasonable access” (whatever that means) to providers that will not balance-bill the patient – whether through some sort of network, or direct contracts, or even case-by-case agreements – the plan will have met its regulatory obligations, and can continue to not count balance-billed amounts toward patients’ out-of-pocket maximums.

The take-away here is that if you’re doing RBP, make sure you’re doing it right! The legal framework may be the wild west, but your own individual RBP plans shouldn’t be. Contact The Phia Group’s consulting team ( to learn more.