Phia Group Media


Phia Group Media

Don’t Confuse Appeals with Balance-Billing!

By: Jon Jablon, Esq.

If you draft, administer, or otherwise manage self-funded health plans, you are likely very familiar with the appeals submission timeframe requirements within the SPD. The relevant regulations prescribe certain timeframes within which a health plan must allow an appeal, and a health plan is certainly free to allow longer periods of time, but abiding by the legal minimums tends to be the common practice.

That’s all well and good, and relatively simple to administer, but they tend to fall flat when applied to balance-billing. Let me explain:

I received an email the other day from a very angry medical provider with whom I had been attempting to resolve a balance-billing scenario, in which the attorney explained that the TPA said to him (and I quote): “On page 83 the plan document says that all payment appeals must be submitted within twelve months of the date of the adverse benefit determination. You have billed the patient seventeen months following the determination. Therefore you are prohibited from billing the patient for the balance.”

A provider’s appeal is to the Plan itself, saying, essentially, “you have underpaid this claim,” whereas balance-billing is to the member, saying “you are responsible for the balance that your health plan has not paid.” While it is certainly possible for a provider to simultaneously appeal to the Plan and balance-bill the member, they constitute two very different demands, and only one – the appeal to the Plan – falls under the purview and limitations of the Plan Document.

I want to do my part to dispel the popular misconception that balance-billing can be eradicated with the right plan language in place. Balance-billing, by definition, is outside the terms of the Plan, and therefore nothing written in the Plan Document can change a provider’s rights. The Plan Document’s terms can and should be used as arguments against balance-billing, of course, and the Plan needs strong language to defend itself – but even the strongest Plan Document language cannot legally prohibit a provider from balance-billing.

Feel free to contact, and we’ll do our best to answer all your appeal and balance-billing questions!

Network Contract Drafting: You’re Doin’ It Wrong

By: Jon Jablon, Esq.

Our consulting team recent came across a network agreement that had the interesting nuance of indicating that the provider would bill amounts that were in line with market standards.

Language like that is a killer. There’s no way around it. It’s so ambiguous as to be all but useless when trying to decide which amounts are properly billed. What exactly are the appropriate market standards? Who is empowered to decide that? When the payor and medical provider inevitably have wildly different opinions on that, how can they possibly resolve the matter when the contract language is so infuriatingly unhelpful?

In this example, the provider had unbundled certain charges, and argued that the market did in fact bear that billing methodology, since most private payors such as this one accepted it – and therefore it was proper pursuant to the contract. The plan, however, contended that a large portion of the provider’s business (and a large part of the total local market) was made up of Medicare claims, and CMS guidelines do not bear that type of unbundling – and therefore it was not proper pursuant to the contract.

Due to this tragically-unclear contractual provision, the payor and provider have been forced to either compromise (which neither wants to do), or take it to court (which neither wants to do, either). It’s going to come down to which option the parties hate less.

Another tragic aspect of this story is its moral. The moral of the story should be to make sure you read your contracts and have them reviewed by an expert prior to signing – but as many of us have found out the hard way, it’s not always possible to view a copy of the provider-facing network agreement. If the payor agreement that you sign talks about billing standards, make sure they’re clear and unambiguous; if it doesn’t, try asking to see the provider agreement. The worst anyone can say is no.

Food for thought: if you’re being asked to sign your name to terms that are clearly ambiguous, or terms the other party won’t even show you, maybe that vendor is not the right fit for your business…

The Reference Based Pricing Stew

By: Jon Jablon, Esq.

Reference-based pricing (or RBP) tends to be one of those things that there’s little ambivalence about; in general, if you are acquainted with reference-based pricing, you either love it or hate it. And, like so many hot topics, some of the intricacies are not quite clear. That’s partially due to the sheer complexity of the industry and reference-based pricing in general, but also partially due to the competing sales efforts floating around. Since the RBP stew has so many ingredients, like any stew recipe, there are tons of different ideas of what makes a good stew – but that also means it’s fairly easy to cook a bland one.

Some have historically advocated sticking to your guns and never settling at more than what the SPD provides. This is a mentality that has largely dissipated from the industry, but some still hold it dear, and many plan sponsors and their brokers adopt reference-based pricing programs with the expectation that all payments can be limited to a set percentage of Medicare with no provider pushback. That can best be described as the desire to have one’s stew and eat it too; in practice, it’s not possible for the Plan to pay significantly less than billed charges while simultaneously ensuring that members have access to quality health care with no balance-billing. The law just doesn’t provide any way to do that.

Plans adopting reference-based pricing programs should be urged to realize that although it can add a great deal of value, reference-based pricing also necessarily entails either a certain amount of member disruption, or increased payments to providers or vendors that indemnify patients or otherwise guarantee a lack of disruption. It is not wise, though, to expect that members will never be balance-billed, and that the Plan will be able to decide its own payment but not have to settle claims. Provider pushback can be managed by the right program, but unless someone is paying to settle claims, there is no way to avoid noise altogether and keep patients from collections and court.

Based on all this, it has been our experience that reference-based pricing works best when there are contracts in place with certain facilities. Steering members to contracted facilities provides the best value and avoids balance-billing; when a provider is willing to accept reasonable rates, giving that provider steerage can be enormously beneficial to the Plan. Creating a narrow network of providers gives the Plan options to incentivize members, and gives members a proactive way to avoid balance-billing.

There are of course other ingredients that need to go into the RBP stew – but having the right attitude is incredibly important, and knowing what to expect is vital. Expectations are the base of the stew; you can add all the carrots (member education?) and potatoes (ID card and EOB language?) you want – but if the base is wrong, then the stew can’t be perfect.

A House Divided
By: Ron E. Peck, Esq.

In the world of self-funding, everyone plays a role.  The broker advises, the employer customizes their plan and funds it, the claims administrator (TPA, ASO, etc.) processes claims, and stop-loss provides financial insurance.  When the lines get blurred or we start asking people to do the jobs of others, we either create new opportunities or destroy the foundation.  It all depends upon whom we’re asking, what we’re asking them to do, and whether they are stepping on any other toes when so doing it.

Consider, for instance, when a benefit plan asks its stop-loss carrier whether they should or shouldn’t pay a claim.  Stop-loss is not health insurance.  It is a form of financial reinsurance.  Health insurance receives medical bills, processes the claims, and pays medical service providers for care rendered to insured individual patients.  Stop-loss allows others to handle the “health insuring,” and instead provides protection to such health benefit plans against debts – incurred by those benefit plans – when payable claims exceed a deductible.  They despise it when a plan asks them whether the plan should pay or deny a claim.  They don’t want to be the fiduciary, or deemed responsible for wrong payment decisions.  They aren’t paid to make such decisions, or incur such exposure.  As such, most stop-loss carriers have traditionally told the plan that they (the carrier) cannot make the call, and that the plan will have to comply to the best of their ability with the plan document.  That, when the claim is submitted for reimbursement to the carrier, only then will they judge the payability.

The problem?  Some carriers want to have their cake and eat it too.  They won’t tell the plan what to pay and what to deny, but they will happily criticize the plan’s decisions after the fact.  Again – let me stress that I’m talking about a minority of carriers.  These very few can ruin the reputation of an entire industry, however, and that is why it is so important to address this growing problem.

With increasing frequency – a lack of communication or presence of conflicting interpretation is resulting in stop-loss and benefit plans disagreeing regarding what is payable, how much is payable, and thus – what is covered by stop-loss.  Even more tragically, the growing number of disputes between plans and stop-loss carriers is leading to an increased number of claims paid by benefit plan sponsors that are not reimbursed by stop-loss, resulting in employers enduring negative experiences with self-funding, financial ruin, and legislative scrutiny.

For instance, a plan document may define the maximum payable rate as “usual and customary,” and define that as being a number calculated by reviewing what most payers pay.  The plan takes that to mean “private payers,” while stop-loss includes Medicare as a “payer” when calculating the payable rate.  Or, perhaps the plan applies usual and customary only to out of network claims – choosing to pay per a PPO network contract whenever possible, but stop-loss interprets the term “maximum payable” to apply to all claims – in and out of network; arguing further that the plan document controls the plan, and stop-loss only insures the plan.

The number of claims I’ve seen independently audited by the carrier, resulting in the carrier chopping away at the amount paid by the plan – in an effort to define what they feel is the “payable” amount – and the resultant conflicts will not benefit the industry.  When a self-funded employer who sponsors a self-funded plan, also uses a PPO (to avoid balance billing of their members), and that plan pays $100,000 in “discounted claims” … they expect stop-loss to pay everything paid beyond the $60,000 deductible; a refund of $40,000.  It is, after all, why they pay for stop-loss, and is something they depend upon to self-fund.  Imagine, then, when the carrier “reprices” the $100,000 using Medicare,  and decides no more than $10,000 should have been paid… well short of the $60,000 deductible.  They may even go so far as to “advise” the plan to ask the provider to refund $90,000 to the plan.

This employer will point a finger at their broker, their TPA, and stop-loss.  Taking the carrier’s advice to heart, and challenging the outrageous provider bills and/or PPO terms is the last thing they are going to do.  The sooner we realize this form of “tough love” doesn’t work, and ultimately only provides fuel for politician’s anti-self-funding rhetoric, the better.

To address this issue, it behooves both the plan (and its TPA) and stop-loss to examine the plan in its entirety during the underwriting process.  What do I mean by “entirety?”  The plan document is not enough.  A plan is more than an “SPD.”  It is also the network contracts, employee handbooks, and any other document or obligation that dictates how the plan will actually be administered.  Only by laying all of those cards on the table ahead of time and agreeing collectively how the plan will be administered in all such circumstances can disputes like the ones I described be addressed before real money is at stake.

Magical Words in Claim Negotiation: “Please Send Claim Back for Processing”
I negotiate healthcare claims and I have been doing this off and on for nearly 15 years, so I have learned a few things along the way.  Lately, I am picking up on an uptick of a trend with providers and particularly with their third-party billers. Here’s the shtick:  The provider or rep advises of a low discount requirement (this is nothing new), but if you don’t accept that rate, they shut down and politely tell you to “please send claim back for processing.”  What is that all about?

I am a negotiator and I have been hired to present objective third-party data (and we have gobs of it) about the reasonable value of healthcare services to compel another party to willingly settle a claim with a signed agreement.  My raison d’etre is to minimize reimbursement and help health plans contain costs. In contrast, a third party biller’s job is to maximize revenue and cash flow – so they either believe that a settlement will accomplish their goals, or they don’t.  

When a provider representative tells you to send the claim back, they know the insurer has to pay the benefits outlined in the health plan, and so they are basically saying… “nice data, superior parsing of code edits, impressive legal argumentation, very persuasive, but I don’t think the plan has the language to support that level of reimbursement or that they will even apply the limits if they do exist…I think will likely get more money if the payer processes their payment, so please send claim back for processing.”  And you know what?  On average, and sadly, they are absolutely right.   

So what to do?  Two things: 1) make sure your plan language gives you the ability to pay a reasonable referenced-based price (RBP) for out-of-network (OON) services, and 2) if facing an “unreasonable” provider or one that basically says “buzz off” … you need to pay your RBP rate.  In a world where one party can just say flat-out no to settlement, and get paid more money, why would they ever say yes?  Your negotiation is only as good as your end-game.  

Believe you me, if you selectively enforce your RBP end-game (when it makes sense, and allowed by the Plan) you will find that seemingly abusive providers will be more malleable for settlement on your next claim.  As for balance-billing, you will experience it more rarely than you might expect.  Most providers follow the trend of high billing (since “everyone else is doing it…”) to maximize payments from payers but rarely intend to squeeze hapless patients directly.  If they do want to go down this route, there are ways to enforce the consumers’ rights and get the “balance” (that no one ever actually pays) absolved.  

At Phia, we try to have a meaningful meeting of minds to try and come to mutually acceptable agreements with providers, and we work with our clients to help guide them through the often nonsensical world of claim settlement.  Understandably, however, many of our clients have simply given up with even trying to engage in settlement, and they are moving directly to RBP on OON claims, dealing with the levels of balance-billing which can be managed appropriately (with our assistance).  In light of this change, maybe we will see providers start saying “please send back for negotiation.”  

Full Billed Charges: A Question of Geography
By: Jon Jablon, Esq.

It is increasingly common within the self-funded industry for medical providers to demand full billed charges for non-contracted claims. As we know, no one is actually required to pay full billed charges – but when push comes to shove, that tends to be the prevailing demand.

What about when the plan document limits payment at a percentage of Medicare? Say, 150%? The fiduciary has a duty to strictly abide by the terms of the plan document when making payments – and the definition of a non-contracted claim is that there is no contract to provide services at an agreed-upon price. Interestingly, though, and perhaps rendering it a misnomer, a non-contracted claim is still subject to two distinct contracts – an assignment of benefits, and the all-important plan document.

The plan document, of course, defines the Plan’s payment mechanisms and explains beneficiaries’ rights. When the plan document says that the Plan will pay $X, and the Plan does pay $X, the Plan has followed the terms of the plan document to a T. Or to an X, anyway. Let’s boil that down as simply as possible: X = X. What could be simpler than that?

Next, the assignment of benefits is an agreement between the patient and the provider. The patient says “I will transfer you all health plan benefits due to me ($X), and I promise that if $X does not compensate you fully, I will pay whatever balance you think makes sense.” In return, the medical provider promises to provide valuable medical services. We at The Phia Group have discussed the concept of assignments of benefits ad nauseum, and for good reason; this is the mechanism by which medical providers become beneficiaries of Plan benefits, and are due $X from the Plan.

Question: does an assignment of benefits give providers the right to receive full billed charges from the Plan, even though the Plan limits its benefits to an amount less than billed charges? There are a lot of moving parts in the self-funded industry, and this is yet another; the answer you may not have expected is maybe: it depends on the Plan’s geography.

Is the Plan domiciled in Fantasyland, home of laughable arguments, unexplainable oddities, and absurd logic? Then yes – billed charges will be due on every non-contracted claim, regardless of plan document language.

Or, is the Plan domiciled in Realityville, where general legal and market principles do exist, words have actual meaning, and hospitals and attorneys can be expected to be at least reasonably informed? If that’s where the Plan is, then no – of course an assignment of benefits doesn’t guarantee payment of full billed charges.

What are you, nuts?

You Are Not Going to Sue Us, Are You?
…is what a nice lady asked me when we were discussing the charges her office submitted for drug addiction treatments. You see, this office billed $3,800.00 per day for inpatient detox, and separately, under a different corporate name (but same billing office), they billed our client for drug screenings at a whopping $4,000.00 per screen – with one screen performed per day.

Our communication with their office (written and sent by one of our attorneys) was stern but professional; we seriously questioned the propriety of those charges and made it clear that our client would not pay for them since they are considered part of the per diem for detox.  

“You are not going to sue us, are you?”  They were worried about a class action.  Think about that.  The provider representative’s guilty conscience was palpable.  We settled the claims at a small percentage above the Medicare equivalent rate, and we closed the lawsuit needed.  Everyone walked away happy.

We are seeing more and more of these types of billing practices sprouting up in sunbelt regions.  

Treating addiction is a serious issue, and I am absolutely not diminishing the need for this type of service. In fact, I am married to a family and marriage therapist, so I understand mental health issues better than most.  That said, it is somewhat ironic that this particular example is of addiction claims, as it would seem that such high billed charges and ridiculous margins are a serious form of corporate addiction within the provider community. Effectively, we have addicts treating addicts.

If you have claims from providers that are “getting high”… let us know. We can help.  

Transparency – It’s Not Just for Ghosts
By: Kelly Dempsey, Esq.

If you’re paying any attention to the news these days, you know that the healthcare industry as a whole has been facing some pretty large issues.  In addition to “repeal and replace,” we’re also faced with the skyrocketing cost of healthcare in the United States.  Both topics are focused on money – either loss of money by insurers who are now threatening to leave the Marketplace or the high costs of new drugs that have hit the market, that have the potential to cripple employer health plans.  While both of these are clearly issues that need attention, let’s look at something other than the turmoil in the Marketplace or shiny new things that are also fueling the fire.  

What about the costs of standard medical procedures?  When your doctor says you need a medical procedure and you actually think to ask “how much will this cost,” do you get a straight answer?  In some cases, you might. Maybe you’ll get a ballpark figure. But most of the time, the response will be wishy-washy because the procedure is unique to you and the providers cannot foresee complications that may change the projected cost.  

You may be thinking, “Ya, ya, ya.  I’ve heard this speech about price transparency before.”  In the past I had the same thought, but then I experienced the radical difference in charges for the same service and my view has been forever shifted.  I received the same procedure two years apart, at two different facilities, in two different states.  It’s been quite a while since these procedures happened, but I still think about it often.  

A few years ago (ok, maybe more than a few, but who’s counting), I had flu-like symptoms and also some sharp-shooting pains on both the left and right side of my abdominal area that I just couldn’t shake with extra rest and sleep.  My mom (a nurse) suggested that my issues may have been related to my gallbladder, so I took some over-the-counter medicine and my symptoms disappeared.  But a week later, I was back to where I started despite still taking the medication.  I reluctantly went to the doctor (in northeast Ohio), who said that there were many possibilities, but that it could be appendicitis.  My doctor told me that the last time she had seen someone with sensitivity to the abdominal region (i.e., sensitive to the touch), she didn’t send them for a CT scan, but the end result was appendicitis and emergency surgery was performed.  I didn’t have the classic symptoms of appendicitis, but a CT scan was ordered just to be sure.  I won’t bore you with the details, but the CT scan showed that it was appendicitis and I had a scheduled surgery to remove my appendix.  Weeks later the bills started rolling in, including a bill for the CT scan…$1,900.  I’d never had a CT scan before, so I had no idea what to expect, but $1,900 clearly wasn’t it (and I think this was after the PPO discount).    

Two years later, I found myself feeling under the weather.  I went to the doctor and an ultrasound was ordered.  Of course my appointment was on a Friday and it was a holiday weekend, so I had to wait to get the ultrasound, but I had a trip to Niagara Falls planned and I wasn’t cancelling it.  Unfortunately before I could have the ultrasound done, I woke up early on a Saturday morning with more sharp-shooting pains, but this time more in my side and back.  Being out of state, I didn’t know where else to go except to the emergency room at the hospital in Niagara Falls, New York.  The doctor who saw me took one look at me and said “kidney stone, but we’ll do a CT scan to confirm.”  A few hours later a kidney stone was my official diagnosis.  I spent six hours in the emergency room before I was discharged.  By this time I was working in the industry and dreaded the bills I knew I would be getting.  To my surprise, the bills weren’t nearly as large as I had anticipated.  Of course there were three: the hospital, the ER doctor, and the interpretation of the radiology report, totaling a little over $3,000.  This wasn’t nearly as high as I anticipated.  The hospital bill was itemized, and as I read through it, I stumbled upon the CT scan charge… “$234.”  I thought to myself, “ummmm, excuse me?  That can’t be the only fee for the CT scan.”  I decided that this couldn’t be accurate and waited for another radiology bill to arrive.  No additional bills ever arrived.  

I’m not a medical professional and I’m sure there were differences in the CT scans (maybe the type of machine, etc.), but how could I be charged $1,900 for a CT scan and two years later be charged $234 for a CT scan?  Considering the second procedure was in New York, and Niagara Falls is twice the population than my tiny suburban city outside of Cleveland, Ohio, I was sure the New York charges would be higher, but they weren’t.  The difference in charges for the same (or very similar procedure) is an issue that has stayed with me.  

In doing more research and looking at the figures, it’s amazing to see the variances in the cost-to-charge ratio (i.e., how much a provider charges compared to how much it actually costs them to do a procedure) from provider to provider.  The ACA’s price transparency provision really never got off the ground and other proposed bills haven’t had much success – it’s also unclear if the current administration is motivated to support price transparency.  As the self-funded industry looks at cost containment measures as a whole, medical tourism is growing in popularity, especially when there are high value providers that are willing to offer services at lower costs and be more transparent with pricing.  Medical tourism and other cost containment methods, as well as consumer education, can help employer health plans contain costs; however, there is a need to look at the bigger picture and strive for more price transparency to help stabilize and support our fragile healthcare industry.   

I Fought The Law and…Unpredictable Results Ensued
By: Jon Jablon, Esq.

Are you a landlord? If so, you might know that the law is not on your side. Or, are you a criminal? The law isn’t on your side either, but that one might be more obvious. Last question: are you a benefit plan with members being balance-billed?

There are certain legal protections that our country’s various legislative and regulatory bodies have put in place, such Section 501(r) of the Internal Revenue Code, so-called “surprise billing” legislation, and others – but in general, the majority of medical providers are not subject to legal restrictions in terms of whether they can balance-bill patients. In other words, in most circumstances, a medical provider is permitted to balance-bill a patient for the full balance on a non-contracted claim.

There are many health plans, TPAs, and brokers who want nothing more than to show a facility who's boss and refuse to pay another cent. Are there tactics and arguments that can be used to combat balance-billing? Of course there are! But, if a medical provider calls the plan’s bluff and continues to balance-bill, there is the real threat of collections and potentially a lawsuit, which many of us have witnessed first-hand, and it can be a nightmare for the patient.

For health plans that want to stand strong and not negotiate, litigation is an option! Litigation instituted by the health plan or the patient, that is. Even just the threat of litigation can have great effects on balance-billing support; many facilities, when faced with allegations of egregious billing and evidence that their charges are dozens of times Medicare rates, will close out accounts, or look to sign a direct contract for open and future claims.

Look out, though – because if a medical provider says “let’s dance” in response to a threat of litigation, the plan sponsor or patient will need to either back down or follow through. If the latter, it’s truly unpredictable how the court might react. On the one hand, non-contracted claims must, like all other non-contracted transactions in any other market, be billed at some measure of the fair market value. On the other hand, the patient generally signs the provider’s standard assignment of benefits form that says, in small print, “if your insurance doesn’t pay this whole bill, you agree to pay the rest.” In that case, can the claim truly be called non-contracted, after the patient has agreed (read: contracted) to pay the balance?

There are certain factors that work in the plan’s and patient’s favor, but there are perhaps just as many factors that work against them in a given case. It’s a tough call; whether or not to litigate should depend on many factors, including claim size, balance size, and the bill as a percentage of Medicare. For a $3,000 claim billed at 180% of Medicare, I’d recommend against litigation – but for a $150,000 claim billed at 1,300% of Medicare, it might be worth rolling the dice…

Bidding Against Themselves: $750K Air Ambulance Claim Adventure
I have a weird claim on my desk right now involving an Air Ambulance (AA) carrier that is billing a client $750K for a flight from the east coast to the west coast.

It is not uncommon for an AA carrier to argue that their charges are reasonable and even show us some so-called usual, customary, reasonable (UCR) charge data to justify their charges.  We find ourselves commonly reminding them that their calculation of UCR is not relevant to the Plan’s payment – but rather the reimbursement will be based on the terms of the Plan Document.  We also counter with data of our own (because we want do want to be fair), and we end up settling at a rate that everyone can live with.  


In the case I mentioned above, the AA carrier is sticking to their UCR plastic guns, and they are presenting a 10% discount proudly, as if the employer should be thankful.  To be clear, the AA carrier has a UCR database that is showing their charges are “normal.” $750K! UC-R you kidding me?  

If it were up to me, we would send them a check and tell them where to stick their 10% discount, but our client, as is common, would like an agreement on the claim to protect the member from harassment.  This is a classic ransom scenario; the balance-billing and credit-ruining boogieman is meant to scare the employer into paying more than a reasonable amount for this flight.  Regardless, our directives are to use our legal and claim data expertise to “persuade” the AA carrier to accept a lower reasonable price.  

In this case, to do this, we secured two quotes from other competitive AA carriers for the same flight (distance, resources, etc.) and the quotes came in at $35K and $50K.  Yes, you read that right – basically $700K less than these billed charges.  For good measure, we also consulted another UCR publisher, which quoted UCR at $47K – right in line with the quotes received.  Now, we understand that pre-service quotes are less than post-service charges, but certainly this is enough data to get them “in range.”  


We presented these market-based quotes and other UCR data to the AA carrier as a benchmark of “fair market value.” They scoffed, refusing to budge, and they are now saying they want to take this to court because of their “ironclad” UCR data.  

Here’s the best part.  We managed to secure a quote from the very same AA carrier that billed $750K (everything is the same).  The SAME carrier. The SAME flight.  They offered in writing, $35K (insert nausea).  

Believe it or not, we are still trying to get this matter resolved. Moral of the story? Don’t let anyone else (despite their best intentions) exclusively define and calculate UCR for you, because they may get it wrong, as this case clearly shows.  Instead, make sure your plan documents have a comprehensive definition that is fair to the provider, the member, and the Plan based on objective, real-world, fair market measures. At best, an unreasonable UCR calculation shocks the conscience; at worst, it can obliterate your wallet.