Health-care interests, using TV ads that hide who’s paying for the air time, fight legislation to limit surprise or ‘balance’ billing

This ad claims the bill would help insurance firms and hurt patients.
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Unknown people and businesses are giving millions of dollars to kill legislation nearing passage in Congress that would protect consumers from surprise medical bills. That’s who’s paying for those ads you’re seeing on television. They’re called “dark money” groups because they don’t reveal their contributors.

“Pity the poor consumer trying to understand the coming congressional debate,” writes journalist Trudy Lieberman, who considers patients’ point of view. She says surprise bills have heaped “staggering amounts of debt … on unsuspecting patients after they believed insurance had paid for their care. Those bills are growing rapidly and ensnaring more and more Americans in what has become one of the medical industry’s most unsavory business practices.”

Lieberman notes a study just published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine: “The number of surprise bills for both ER and inpatient admissions are rising. In 2010, about 32% of all ER visits resulted in surprise bills. In 2016, nearly 43% did. Surprise bills for inpatient admissions jumped from about 26% to 42% over the same period. What’s more, the average amount billed to patients for ER visits nearly tripled and the cost for inpatient admissions more than doubled.”

With the TV ads, “the special interests that benefit from socking patients with additional bills” are trying “to convince consumers that any congressional efforts this fall to correct the surprise billing problem may actually harm patients,” Lieberman writes. Noting the “Harry and Louise” ads that helped kill the Clinton health-care plan in 1994, she says “This kind of advertising works.”

Lieberman says the industry is fighting hard because it fears “any kind of cost containment . . . something sorely needed, and bitterly fought for decades by the medical businesses whose incomes are at stake.”

The advertisers include a dark-money group called Another group, Doctor Patient Unity, which is targeting eight Republican senators, including Kentucky’s Rand Paul and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. KARE-TV in Minneapolis notes in an analysis that one of the bills “doesn’t set actually set rates for out-of-network procedures, but instead sets benchmarks for how much out-of-network providers can collect if a surprise bill shows up,” Lieberman notes. “But in a TV ad that lasts a few seconds, how would the viewer be able to make that distinction?
The air ambulance industry, which has gained notoriety over the last few years for its surprise billing tactics, too, has added its own ads to the confusing pile of persuasion aimed at the public,” Lieberman reports. “According to OpenSecrets.org, the industry has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV and radio ads” using the name Global Medical Response. “The scary message is that air medical services are at risk. More than 30 bases have closed this year, disappearing from rural communities that need these services the most, the ad says.”
The ad urges viewers to contact Congress about the surprise-billing legislation. “It’s not hard to see that someone living in a remote rural area might just do that,” Lieberman writes. “Never mind that in the last few years media stories have revealed how families have been financially devastated from air ambulance bills, and that state laws are ineffective in regulating this industry.””And if all this isn’t confusing enough,” Lieberman writes, “there’s yet another group, called the Coalition Against Surprise Medical Billing. It represents large employers, health insurance agents, and business associations like the National Business Group on Health.” This coalition wants to eliminate “balance billing,” the main type of surprise billing, when “a patient is involuntarily treated by an out-of-network doctor, and wants to require health insurers to reimburse out-of-network providers based on local market rates negotiated by local providers. That would avoid what it calls a cumbersome arbitration process, the approach preferred by the aforementioned doctors’ groups.

Steve Wojcik, vice president of public policy at the National Business Group on Health, told Lieberman, “I believe that the investor-driven physician staffing firms fear that if our preferences become law, their business model — go out of network and raise prices — is shot.” He added, “Everyone agrees on banning balance billing. The disagreement is over payment rates and processes for determining payment for out-of-network physicians.”

Lieberman concludes, “The scary TV ads flooding the airwaves from this group or that mask the real issue. It all comes down to money and who gets how much. . . . How this turns out is anyone’s guess right now, and it may be that Congress has been sufficiently spooked by the TV ads targeting its members that it will be too timid to pass any legislation addressing this growing problem. But there’s one thing we do know from the history of health care battles: The longer the legislative fixes twist in the wind and the attack ads run, the less likely any real protections for patients become.”