Surprise medical billing has become a critical issue facing Americans across the country because of purposeful corporate practices designed to increase profits. As hospitals have outsourced emergency rooms and other specialty care to reduce costs, private investors have bought up specialty physician practices, rolled them into powerful national corporations, and taken over hospital emergency services. The result: large out-of-network surprise bills. The hidden actors: Leading private equity firms looking for ‘outsized’ returns.
Surprise medical billing made headlines in 2019 as patients with health insurance found themselves liable for hundreds or even thousands of dollars in unforeseen medical bills. When patients with urgent medical problems go to an emergency room (ER) or are treated by specialty doctors at a hospital that is in their insurance network, they expect that the services they receive will be ‘in-network’ and covered by their insurance. But often a doctor not in their insurance network is under contract with the hospital and actually provides the care. When this happens, patients are stuck with unexpected and sometimes unreasonably high medical bills charged by these ‘out-of-network’ doctors. This typically occurs when the hospital has outsourced the ER or other specialized services to a professional staffing firm or a specialty doctors’ practice. This problem has exploded in recent years because hospitals are increasingly outsourcing these services to cut costs. And more and more patients are faced with surprise medical bills — adding substantially to the already impossible medical debt that working people face.
Hospital outsourcing of emergency, radiology, anesthesiology, and other departments has provided an opening for physician practices to operate these services as independent organizations. Initially, hospitals outsourced these services to small, local doctors’ groups. But over the past decade, private equity firms have become major players — buying out doctors’ practices and rolling them up into large corporate physician staffing firms that provide services to outsourced emergency rooms, anesthesiology and radiology departments, and other specialty units. By 2013, physician staffing firms owned by Blackstone Group and Kohlberg, Kravis Roberts & Co. (KKR) – among the largest PE firms in the country – cornered 30 percent of this market. Since then, private equity ownership of these services has continued to grow. Private equity firms also own two of the three largest emergency ambulance and air transport services – another major source of surprise medical billing.
Private equity ownership matters because the business model of private equity firms is to use a lot of debt in a leveraged buyout of companies they acquire and then extract as much cash as possible out of them in order to pay down the debt and reward their investors with ‘outsized returns’ that exceed stock market gains. They can be thought of as for-profit corporations on steroids. Buying up specialty practices is financially attractive because there is a large and growing demand for outsourced doctors, and out-of-network doctors can command a substantial premium for their services. Emergency rooms and certain medical services provided in hospitals are not really part of a competitive ‘marketplace’ because patients in emergency medical situations rarely have a choice: they need immediate medical care and cannot ‘shop around’ for an in-network trauma doctor or radiologist. Thus, surprise bills are difficult to avoid if patients face a medical emergency and must go to the ER or if they are hospitalized and require access to specialty medical services.
How Widespread is Surprise Billing and Why Has It Grown?
Surprise medical billing is exacerbating the already serious problem of medical debt in this country, which is a leading cause of bankruptcy for American families.[i] And surprise billing is growing rapidly. Forty percent of Americans surveyed by the Kaufman Family Foundation in April, 2019, reported receiving an unexpected medical bill; and 20 percent of those surveyed said it was due to out-of-network charges – or surprise billing.[ii] A study by health researchers at Stanford University, for example, examined fees charged to patients with private insurance who were treated by the emergency department of a hospital. They reviewed 13.6 million trips to the ER that occurred over the period 2010 to 2016. About a third (32.3 percent) of these trips in 2010 resulted in a surprise medical bill. But by 2016, that figure had increased to 42.8 percent. That is, more than 4 in 10 trips to the ER ended with patients getting a surprise medical bill.[iii] For in-patient stays, surprise billing rose from 26 percent to 42 percent, and the average costs per patient also jumped from $804 to $2,040. At this rate of increase, the estimated percent of hospital visits resulting in a surprise bill would be 48 percent in 2019 – or almost one half. The study also found that in 2016, 86% of ER visits and nearly 82% of hospital admissions incurred surprise ambulance service bills.
Similarly, another 2019 study found that patients who are admitted to a hospital from the ER are much more likely to receive an out-of-network charge — as many as 26% of admissions from the emergency room were found to include a surprise bill. The study also found that 38 percent of Americans are ‘very worried’ and another 29 percent are ‘somewhat worried’ about being able to afford surprise medical bills. People particularly vulnerable to these charges are those with coverage from large employers that are self-insured. And vulnerability also varied by region, with Texas, New York, Florida, New Jersey, and Kansas having higher rates of surprise billing; and Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Maine, and Mississippi having lower rates.[iv]
While large surprise medical bills are typically associated with doctors in the ER or in specialties such as radiology, anesthesiology, or critical care units such as neo-natal, burn, or trauma centers, other out-of-network physicians may also issue surprise bills. For example, those who assist a patient’s doctor in a procedure or hospitalists who check on patients during hospital stays can also charge separately for their services. The Stanford study found that the likelihood that a patient admitted to an in-network hospital would face a surprise medical bill because at least one out-of-network doctor cared for them increased from 26.3 percent 2010 to 42.0 percent in 2016. A particularly egregious instance occurred when an assistant surgeon sent a bill for $117,000 to a patient who had surgery for herniated discs in his neck. The patient’s own in-network surgeon sent a bill for $133,000, but accepted a fee of $6,200 negotiated with the insurance company. The out-of-network assistant surgeon is seeking full payment of his charges. This is a particularly egregious example, but surprise bills for a few thousand dollars are not uncommon.[v]
The problem of surprise billing has grown substantially in recent years because hospitals have been under financial pressure to reduce overall costs and have turned to outsourcing expensive and critical services to third-party providers as a cost-reduction strategy. Outsourcing is not new, as hospitals began outsourcing non-medical ancillary services such as facilities management and food services in the 1980s, in response to a round of structural changes in government financing. By the 1990s, hospitals were experimenting with the use of independent ‘hospitalists’ to care for patients between rounds by the local admitting doctors who had a hospital affiliation. Hospitalists’ numbers increased over the next two decades as hospital staffing firms grew and provided a range of temporary or short-term professionals to fill shortages in nursing, technical, or clinical positions.[vi]
Recent outsourcing, however, has expanded to critical care areas – emergency rooms, radiology, anesthesiology, surgical care, and specialized units for burn, trauma, or neo-natal care. Now hospitals contract with specialty physician practices or professional physician staffing firms to provide these services – even if the patient receives treatment at a hospital or at an outpatient center that is in the patients’ insurance network. According to one study, surprise billing is concentrated in those hospitals that have outsourced their emergency rooms.[vii] A recent report found that almost 65 percent of U.S. hospitals now have emergency rooms that are staffed by outside companies.[viii]
Hospitals and healthcare systems have accelerated their outsourcing of critical care areas since 2010 in part due to declines in Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements and to incentives under the Affordable Care Act to reduce costs and improve care quality.[ix] At the same time, on the supply side, hospitalist companies were merging and buying up practices of specialists employed mainly in hospitals. Hospitalist companies evolved into physician staffing firms and expanded to include staffing for emergency rooms (ERs), anesthesiology and radiology departments, and burn and neonatal intensive care units in hospitals across the country.
The business case for hospitals to outsource was straightforward. Emergency rooms are a major point of entry for patients who are admitted to hospitals, and thus, a major conduit for the in-patient hospital stays that are critical for hospital revenue generation. But they are costly and difficult to manage as they must be adequately staffed on a 24/7 basis regardless of patient flow, which is unpredictable. Outsourcing the management, staffing, and billing of ER services shifts these management problems and the risk of underpayment for these services to the staffing firm or a specialty doctors’ practice. Hospital emergency rooms cannot turn patients away if they lack adequate insurance coverage or any insurance at all; they must treat all patients. Emergency departments make money on ER visits of patients with commercial insurance, but lose money on those with Medicare or Medicaid, and see very high losses when patients have no insurance.[x]
Private Equity’s Business Model: Its Role in Outsourcing and Consolidating Specialty Services
Private equity firms have played a critical role in consolidating physicians’ practices into large national staffing firms with substantial bargaining power vis-à-vis hospitals and insurance companies. They have also bought up other emergency providers, such as ambulance and medical transport services. They grow by buying up many small specialty practices and ‘rolling them up’ into umbrella organizations that serve healthcare systems across the United States. Mergers of large physician staffing firms to create national powerhouses have also occurred. As these companies grow in scale and scope and become the major providers of outsourced services, they have gained greater market power in their negotiations with both hospitals and insurance companies: hospitals with whom they contract to provide services and insurance companies who are responsible for paying the doctors’ bills.
Hospitals have consolidated in order to gain market share and negotiate higher insurance payments for procedures. Healthcare costs have been driven up further by the dynamics associated with payments for out-of-network services. As physicians’ practices merge or are bought out and rolled up by private equity firms, their ability to raise prices that patients or their insurance companies pay for these doctors’ services increases. The larger the share of the market these physician staffing firms control, the greater their ability to charge high out-of-network fees. The likelihood of surprise medical bills goes up, and this is especially true when Insurance companies find few doctors with these specialties in a given region with whom they can negotiate reasonable charges for their services.
The design of the private equity business model is geared to driving up the costs of patient care. Private equity funds rely on the classic leveraged buyout model (LBO) in which they use substantial debt to buyout companies (in this case specialty physician practices as well as ambulance services) because debt multiplies returns if the investment is successful. They target companies that have a steady and high cash flow so they can manage the cash in order to service the debt and make high enough returns to pay their investors ‘outsized returns’ that exceed the stock market.[xi] Emergency medical practices are a perfect buyout target because demand is inelastic, that is, it does not decline when prices go up. Moreover, demand for these services is large – almost 50 percent of medical care comes from emergency room visits, according to a 2017 national study by the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and demand has steadily increased.[xii] PE firms believe they face little or no downside market risk in these buyouts.
Private-equity owned companies differ from publicly traded for-profit chains not only in their greater use of debt, but also because the private equity firm, via the general partner of the investment fund it sponsors, makes all investment decisions on behalf of the investor shareholders. Investors commit capital to a PE-sponsored fund, typically for 10 years, and have no say in investment decisions. Thus, the PE general partner’s power is concentrated and largely unaccountable, as investors cannot ‘exit’ or sell their shares if they are dissatisfied – unlike shareholders in publicly traded corporations.[xiii] In addition, PE firms charge their portfolio companies additional ‘advisory fees’ and ‘transactions fees’ that can amount to millions of dollars over time. And because PE owned companies are not publicly traded on the stock exchange, they are not required to file a detailed report to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) the way that publicly traded companies must do. Their activities and their financial transactions are largely hidden from the public eye, despite the fact that they receive substantial taxpayer funding from Medicare and Medicaid for their services, though not for surprise charges.
Two private-equity owned physician-staffing firms dominate the market for outsourced doctors’ practices — Envision Healthcare, owned by KKR with 69,300 employees, and TeamHealth owned by Blackstone Group with 20,000 employees. KKR also is a major owner (along with other private equity firms) of AirMedicalGroup Holdings — one of the nation’s three largest ambulance and air transport companies. We also showcase private equity owned Air Methods medical transport company. These examples help illuminate how and why private equity firms have become national powerhouses in the provision of professional healthcare services and why their activities and those of other private equity firms in this sector are leading to higher healthcare costs for patients and the industry as a whole.
Envision Healthcare today is the result of fifteen years of private equity transactions in buying up and consolidating emergency ambulance and specialty physicians’ practices. It was formed in 2005 when private equity firm Onex took over two companies — American Medical Response (AMR) and EmCare — and merged them. In and out of private equity ownership since 2005, Envision most recently was acquired by KKR in October, 2018 in a public to private leveraged buyout worth $9.9 billion. Its sprawling organization employs tens of thousands of healthcare professionals; and it supplies doctors in 774 physician practices to hospitals and ambulatory surgical centers throughout the United States. It provides ER doctors, anesthesiologists, radiologists, hospitalists, and other specialists covering intensive care, medical, neo-natal, pediatrics, psychiatric, skilled nursing, rehabilitation, and other inpatient units. Its outpatient ambulatory surgical arm (AMSURG) provides trauma and acute care general surgery in 260 facilities in 35 states.[xiv]
Between 2005 and 2018, Envision provided two types of emergency medical services: an ambulance and medical transport business through American Medical Response (AMR) and emergency physician staffing through EmCare Holdings. Today, Envision focuses on physician staffing services as it sold the ambulance and transport business in a $2.4 billion leveraged buyout in 2018 to another private equity consortium that still includes KKR (as we detail below).
The prior ownership patterns of AMR and EmCare were similar. American Medical Response was listed as a publicly traded company as of August 1992; and in February, 1997, it was acquired by ambulance company MedTrans, a subsidiary of Laidlaw International. At an undisclosed date between 1997 and 2005, PE firm Peak Capital invested an undisclosed amount in the company. Like AMR, EmCare Holdings was acquired by Laidlaw International in the summer of 1997 and subsequently received an undisclosed amount of investment from PE firm Peak Capital. Emergency physician practices figured prominently among EmCare’s 10 acquisitions and 17 sister physician staffing and management firms.[xv]
In December 2005, just months after acquiring and merging AMR and EmCare, Onex brought Envision Healthcare to the public market via an IPO in which it retained a majority of the shares. Subsequent sales of shares left Onex with 31 percent of the company’s equity at the time it was again taken private, this time by Clayton Dubilier & Rice with participation of PE firm Ardian through a $3.2 billion LBO in May 2011. An IPO in 2013 returned Envision Healthcare to the public market. The PE owners retained about two-thirds of the shares of the now-publicly traded company. The PE companies subsequently sold some of the stock. And in September 2017, two hedge funds – Starboard Value and Comex Management – took minority stakes in Envision Healthcare. Between July 2006 and October 2018, Envision Healthcare acquired 39 companies. [xvi]
Envision Healthcare bought out AMSURG in December 2016 after AMSURG failed in an attempt to acquire TeamHealth (described below). The deal brought together two seemingly complementary healthcare companies to form a single organization with pro forma market capitalization of $10 billion and an enterprise value including debt of approximately $15 billion. A little over $8 billion of this was new debt. However, KKR contributed $5.57 billion to the deal, using $4.43 billion to retire Envision’s prior liabilities and the remainder mainly as equity in the LBO. Adding AMSURG’s large chain of ambulatory surgical centers was supposed to make Envision Healthcare a dominant player across the outsourced medical services landscape – emergency room doctors, hospitalists, outpatient surgery, and ground and air ambulance. But integrating the two health care companies – with a combined 69,300 employees as of December 2017 – proved difficult for publicly traded Envision Healthcare.[xvii]
Envision Healthcare appears to be extremely profitable, but its financials are murky, with no publicly available accounting of its transactions with each round of private equity buyouts. And under private equity ownership, when companies are taken private or pass from one private equity fund to another, there is no transparency. Each private equity buyout, however, is typically accompanied by levering substantial debt on the target company, which must be serviced by managing for cash. Emergency medical services are attractive to private equity firms and are very lucrative because they throw off a lot of cash, and as noted earlier, demand is inelastic and the fees are not subject to competitive market pricing.
The contracts negotiated between these physician staffing companies and hospitals also are not publicly available. Depending on how they are crafted, they may provide incentives to outsource even more ER departments, and in turn increase out-of-network billing. One Wall Street investor analysis, for example, highlights Envision’s ‘joint venture’ model that raises serious questions. A 2013 analysis by Deutsche Bank Securities described a 2012 joint venture between EmCare and the HCA Healthcare chain – with a history of private equity ownership between 2006 and 2011 and substantial PE ownership of shares following its 2011 IPO. HCA apparently agreed to give up directly charging for physicians’ services and outsourced these services to EmCare in exchange for a 50-50 profit split once EmCare achieved a 13% margin threshold, according to the Deutsche Bank calculation. This allowed EmCare to “… penetrate HCA’s 160+ hospital portfolio more deeply with its physician offerings.” As of 2014, EmCare valued its HCA joint venture at a net revenue of $124 million, with assets of $155 million and liabilities of $31 million, according to the company’s SEC filing. The filing identified similar joint ventures with hospitals involving Evolution Health (also owned by Envision).[xviii] Commenting on EmCare’s relations with hospitals, Benedic Ippolito, a research fellow in public finance and health economics at the American Enterprise Institute, noted, “Right now, EmCare surprise bills patients and hospitals effectively turn a blind eye.”[xix]
Envision has come under heavy scrutiny for the huge out-of-network surprise medical bills it sends to ER patients. A team of Yale University health economists examined the billing practices of EmCare, Envision’s physician staffing arm.[xx] They found that when EmCare took over the management of emergency departments, it nearly doubled its charges for caring for patients compared to the charges billed by previous physician groups. These egregious practices have resulted in a Congressional investigation headed by Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, lawsuits from shareholders, and court actions involving Envision and UnitedHealth Group, the largest U.S. insurer.[xxi]
TeamHealth has also grown into a powerful national healthcare professional staffing company with 20,000 employees. It contracts with hospitals to provide doctors and other healthcare professionals as ER staff, anesthesiologists, hospitalists, and hospital specialists (OB/GYN, orthopedics, general surgery, pediatric services); and in post-acute care, ambulatory care, and behavioral health.[xxii] The company experienced successive rounds of private equity leveraged buyouts punctuated by IPOs that returned it to the public markets – only to be taken private again through another LBO. In 1999, private equity firms Cornerstone Equity Investors and Madison Dearborn Partners, with minority participation of Becken Petry O’Keefe and Company, acquired TeamHealth as a platform for a physician staffing company. According to PitchBook (an industry research and data firm), TeamHealth acquired an anesthesiology practice, a hospitalist company, and a health management business in its first two years. It made no further acquisitions until after it was acquired by the Blackstone Group in 2005 in a leveraged secondary buyout (in which one PE fund sells a company to another PE fund). TeamHealth made two more acquisitions between 2005 and 2009 – an emergency physician’s group and a hospitalist company.
In 2009, Blackstone Group returned TeamHealth to the public market via an IPO, but retained possession of a majority of shares in the newly public company. Passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, with its promise of cost containment via capitated and bundled payments, spurred TeamHealth to go on a buying spree. Between 2010 and 2016, TeamHealth acquired 51 companies, mainly practices of emergency doctors and anesthesiologists and a few hospital management companies. One very large exception to this pattern was TeamHealth’s 2015 acquisition of IPC Healthcare.[xxiii]
IPC Healthcare was a major hospitalist company. In its early years, it attracted four rounds of venture capital investments between 1998, when it was launched as IPC The Health Company, and 2002. In June 2002, IPC had an IPO and began its life as a publicly traded company. Between 2002 and 2009, IPC acquired 20 physician practices. Between 2010 and 2015, following passage of the ACA, it acquired 78 more. The companies acquired by IPC were overwhelmingly hospitalist companies with a smattering of doctor’s practices in specialties such as geriatrics.[xxiv]
TeamHealth’s acquisition of IPC in 2015 raised questions. There was no evident fit between TeamHealth’s specialty physician practices and IPC’s hospitalist companies. IPC was also in trouble with the Department of Justice, which in June 2014, had filed a civil lawsuit against the company for “knowingly engaging in systematic overbilling” for services billed to Medicare and Medicaid and other government health programs. Ultimately, TeamHealth paid $60 million plus interest to resolve these allegations.[xxv] This fueled speculation that TeamHealth, which had rebuffed AMSURG’s attempt to acquire it, wanted this very large acquisition in order to protect itself from being taken over. TeamHealth’s explanation was that it wanted IPC’s expertise in participating in Medicare and Medicaid bundled payments programs.[xxvi]
In February 2017, Blackstone Group once again took TeamHealth private in a $6.1 billion leveraged buyout. Similar to Envision Healthcare, the financials of TeamHealth are murky. After many LBOs, its revenues, debt load, and financial stability remain unknown, as do the contracts it negotiates with the phyisician groups it has acquired and the hospitals it contracts with for services.
And like Envision, its billing practices are being scrutinized. The Yale researchers who investigated EmCare and found excessive use of surprise medical billing also examined TeamHealth’s billing practices. They found that Blackstone owned TeamHealth has taken a somewhat different tack. It uses the threat of sending high out-of-network surprise bills for ER doctors’ services to an insurance company’s covered patients to gain high fees from the company as in-network doctors. In most cases, the researchers noted, TeamHealth emergency physicians would go out-of-network for a few months, then rejoin the network after bargaining for in-network payment rates that were 68 percent higher than in-network rates received by the previous ER doctors.[xxvii] While this avoids the situation of a patient getting a large, surprise medical bill for the services of ER doctors, it raises healthcare costs and premiums for everyone.
Emergency Ambulance and Air Transport Services
Emergency ambulance and air transport is also a lucrative target for private equity investment, which has fueled consolidation in this industry segment. Demand is inelastic – there is no competitive market pricing. And demand for air transport has grown considerably because many rural hospitals have closed or consolidated, leading to far longer distances for access to emergency care. Two of the three air transport companies that together control two-thirds of this US market are private equity owned – AirMedicalGroup Holdings and Air Methods. The third, PHI Air Medical, is privately owned.[xxviii]
Returning to the Envision story, recall that American Medical Response (AMR) was the ambulance service division that Envision spun off in 2018. Before the divestiture, however, AMR grew to a national powerhouse in the decade from 2007 to2017 through 12 acquisitions of ambulance and medical transport businesses and one air ambulance company7. In addition to these acquisitions, AMR has seven sister companies – mainly ambulance companies, including several air ambulance businesses. It was acquired in 2017 by air ambulance company, AirMedicalGroup Holdings (AMGH) — owned by PE firms Ardian, Koch Equity Development, and KKR — in a $2.4 billion leveraged buyout. With this acquisition, AirMedicalGroup now holds a leading position in emergency and medical transport across a range of transport modalities.[xxix] The acquisition merged the largest provider of ground ambulance services in the U.S. with a leading operator of medical helicopters, with over 320 locations in 38 states.[xxx] The combined entity creates the opportunity for KKR to substitute its more expensive medical helicopters for short trips previously done by AMR’s ambulances.[xxxi]
Air Methods became private equity owned in 2017, when it was acquired by American Securities and Alpinvest Partners through a $2.5 billion public-to-private LBO. The company’s air medical transport services operate out of over 300 bases in 48 states.[xxxii] The buyout came in response to pressure from activist hedge fund investor, J. Daniel Plants, founder of Voce Capital Management. Concerned about the bad publicity surrounding predatory charges by air ambulance companies, Plants wanted Air Methods to agree to be taken private by a PE firm in order to keep information about its billing practices out of public view. According to the hedge fund, Air Methods big price hikes created economic and political risks for the company. Going private would shield its financial documents from patients and insurers. The hedge fund was right to be concerned about Air Methods predatory billing practices. The average bill for being transported in one of its medical helicopters was $17,262 in 2009 and had risen to $40,766 in 2014. Air Methods calculates that it accounts for nearly 30 percent of total air ambulance revenue in the U.S. Its profit increased sevenfold from 2004 to 2014.[xxxiii]
In general, charges for out-of-network ambulance services are likely to be high. In the case of air ambulances, they are exceedingly high – not only due to the high costs of air travel, but especially because an estimated 69 percent of charges are out-of-network — according to a 2017 US General Accountability Office (GAO) study of private insurance records for 2012-2017. That is, insured patients in these cases ended up being billed for most of the charge. The GAO study also found that the median price for helicopter service doubled between 2010 and 2014 – from roughly $15,000 to $30,000 per tri;p it also found that the average cost of an air ambulance trip is over $36,000. .[xxxiv] Another study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found charges were likely to be – as they put it – sky high. The study found that air ambulance charges had risen substantially from 2012 to 2016, and in 2016 these charges ranged from 4 to 9 times higher than what Medicare paid for this service. Some of the largest providers had among the highest charges. Between 2012 and 2016, the median charge ratios (the charge divided by the Medicare rate) for the services increased by 46-61 percent. [xxxv]
Some hospitals have attempted to solve the problem of surprise billing on their own by simply requiring all attending physicians in their hospitals to remain in-network – receiving payment from the insurance companies with whom the hospital has contracted. This has been the traditional approach used by hospitals in managed care networks. According to John Cascell, Senior Vice President of Managed Care at MemorialCare Health System in Fountain Valley, California, “Such stipulations were commonplace decades ago, but some experts say the practice slipped out of favor around 2000 as major physician staffing companies—which tend to make more money when they’re out of network—gained market power.”[xxxvi] MemorialCare, however, has retained this long-standing policy, which Cascell supports. The downside of this approach, however, is that it may shift bargaining power to insurance companies who will seek to set lower in-network payments for specialty services. In these cases, according to Cascell, MemorialCare takes a strong role in negotiating with insurance companies to maintain reasonable payments.[xxxvii]
More generally, the public, healthcare providers, insurers, and state and federal legislators recognize that individual solutions are only stop-gap measures and that no individual hospital can solve the pervasive problem of surprise medical billing on its own. Twenty-five states have passed legislation that aims to protect patients from surprise billing, but these laws do not fully cover all types of situations. Over seventy-five percent of Americans believe that the federal government should step in and protect them from surprise bills, according to a Kaufman Family Foundation April, 2019 national survey. The same survey found that 90 percent of Democrats, three-quarters of Independents, and 60 percent of Republicans favored federal legislation to protect patients.[xxxviii] Americans differ, however, in who they think should bear the costs of care. According to the Kaufman survey, about half say insurance companies alone should cover the costs of care (43 percent) while about half favor joint responsibility between providers and insurance companies (47 percent).[xxxix]
Two approaches to ‘fixing’ surprise medical bills have been put forward. One would benchmark the fees paid to out-of-network doctors to the negotiated fees received by in-network doctors in that region for the procedure performed or the service provided. This would have the effect of holding down health care costs by setting limits to what out-of-network physicians can charge. In the second approach, out-of-network doctors would immediately be paid a given amount by the patient’s insurance company – possibly 125 percent of the Medicare payment or, alternatively, the median payment for that procedure or service in the geographic region – and could then take the insurance company to arbitration in an effort to collect the balance of the patient’s bill.
The second approach has the potential to raise health care costs if arbitration panels award out-of-network doctors all or a major part of the fees they charge. This approach, which is favored by investor-owned physician staffing firms and by large physician practice groups, would further raise health care costs for consumers. Even if many of these physician practices became in-network doctors, as Envision now claims to be doing[xl], the threat of going out-of-network remains. As the TeamHealth example illustrates, this allows physician staffing firms to negotiate high in-network rates that drive up premium costs for consumers.
In sum, there is growing concern over the pricing practices of companies like Envision, TeamHealth, AirMedicalGroup, and Air Methods — leading emergency healthcare companies owned and operated by private equity firms. There is little oversight of the prices they charge, and evidence suggests that these companies are among those responsible for driving up health costs by taking advantage of the possibilities for surprise medical billing. But they are not alone, as private equity firms buy out medical services in specialties other than trauma and radiology and as large physician practices take a page from the PE playbook when setting fees. Reining in these charges is critical to efforts to slow the growth or even reduce health care costs.
[i] Mireya Villarreal. 2019. “Insurance Gap Leaves Patients on the Hook for Unexpected Hospital Bills.” CBS News TMarch 18, 6:45 PM https://www.cbsnews.com/news/insurance-gap-leaves-patients-on-the-hook-for-unexpected-hospital-bills/ (last accessed August 17, 2019)
[ii] Ashley Kirzinger, Bryan Wu, and Mollyann Brodie. 2019. “KFF Health Tracking Poll - April 2019: Surprise Medical Bills and Public’s View of the Supreme Court and Continuing Protections for People with Pre-Existing Conditions.” Figure 13. Kaufman Family Foundation. April 24. https://www.kff.org/health-costs/poll-finding/kff-health-tracking-poll-april-2019/ (last accessed August 20, 2019)
[iii] Eric C. Sun, Michelle M. Mello, Jasmin Moshfegh, et al. 2019. “An Assessment of Out-of-Network Billing for Privately Insured Patients Receiving Care in In-Network Hospitals,” American Medical Association JAMA Internal Medicine, August 12. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2740802?guestaccesskey=9fba6e0c-f029-401a-9675-737db3e67b5d&utm_source=for_the_media&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=ftm_links&utm_content=tfl&utm_term=081219&alert=article (last accessed August 18, 2019)
[iv] Karen Pollitz, Matthew Rae, Gary Claxton, Cynthia Cox and Larry Levitt. 2019. “An Examination of Surprise Medical Bills and Proposals to Protect Consumers from Them.” Kaiser Family Foundation. June 20. https://www.healthsystemtracker.org/brief/an-examination-of-surprise-medical-bills-and-proposals-to-protect-consumers-from-them/# (last accessed August 16, 2019)
[v] Elisabeth Rosenthal. 2014. “After Surgery, Surprise $117,000 Medical Bill from Doctor He Didn’t Know,” New York Times, September 20. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/21/us/drive-by-doctoring-surprise-medical-bills.html; (last accessed August 12, 2019); Sun, Mello, Moshfegh, et al. 2019.
[vi] Mark A. Marinella. 2002. “Hospitalists – Where They Came From, Who They Are, and What They Do,” Hospital Physician, May. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/c1a1/4f8e3e2f70489380db025235661b80d84349.pdf (last accessed July 23, 2019)
[vii] Zack Cooper, Fiona Scott Morton and Nathan Shekita. 2018. “Surprise! Out-of-Network Billing for Emergency Room Services in the U.S.,” Yale University Working Paper, March. https://isps.yale.edu/sites/default/files/publication/2018/03/20180305_oon_paper2_tables_appendices.pdf (last accessed August 1, 2019)
[viii] Mireya Villarreal. 2019.
[ix] Beckers Hospital Review. 2013. “Outsourcing is Exploding in Healthcare — Will the Trend Last?” October 4. https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/human-capital-and-risk/outsourcing-is-exploding-in-healthcare-will-the-trend-last.html (last accessed August 25, 2019)
[x] Zack Cooper, Fiona Scott Morton and Nathan Shekita. 2018.
[xi] For a detailed explanation of the PE business model, see Chapter 2, Eileen Appelbaum and Rosemary Batt. 2014. Private Equity at Work: When Wall Street Manages Main Street, NY: Russell Sage Foundation Press.
[xii] Jeff Lagasse. 2017. “Nearly Half of Medical Care Comes from Emergency Rooms, Study Shows.”
https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/nearly-half-medical-care-comes-emergency-rooms-study-shows (last accessed July 13, 2019).
[xiii] Rosemary Batt and Eileen Appelbaum. 2019. “The Agency Costs of Private Equity: Why do Limited Partners Funds Still Invest?” Academy of Management Perspectives. Forthcoming.
[xiv] Envision Physician Services. https://www.envisionphysicianservices.com/; https://www.amsurg.com/ (last accessed August 22, 2019)
[xv] PitchBook_EmCare_2019_08_10_14_18_43, EmCare Company Profile dated July 27, 2019.
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[xvii] PitchBook. 2019. Envision Healthcare Profile dated July 27, 2019.
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