Friday, May 31, 2013

California exchange plans take away provider choice

Los Angeles Times
May 24, 2013
Insurers limit doctors, hospitals in state-run exchange plans
By Chad Terhune

California's health insurance rates for a new state-run marketplace came in lower than expected this week, but one downside for many consumers will be far fewer doctors and hospitals to choose from.

People who want UCLA Medical Center and its doctors in their health plan network next year, for instance, may have only one choice in California's exchange: Anthem Blue Cross. Another major insurer in the state-run market, Blue Shield of California, said its exchange customers will be restricted to 36% of its regular physician network statewide.

Paul Markovich, chief executive of Blue Shield, said renegotiating with hospitals and physician groups for lower reimbursements was a key factor for insurers in holding down rates. Medical providers are sometimes willing to accept lower payments in return for higher patient volume from these narrow networks.

And Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, one of Southern California's most prestigious and expensive hospitals, said it's not included in any exchange plans at the moment.

Those types of exclusive arrangements, increasingly tight networks and outright exclusions are becoming more common as insurers and government officials search for ways to hold down rising medical costs.

More employers have been adopting these narrower networks and the government's overhaul of the individual insurance market is accelerating the trend.

Comment:  There was quite a celebration amongst Affordable Care Act (ACA) enthusiasts when California, a leader in health care financing innovation, announced that premiums for plans to be offered through the state exchange would not increase sharply over current health plan rates. What is now evident is that the anticipated increases were at least partially offset by further limiting the number of in-network hospitals and physicians, made possible by insurers negotiating lower provider payments in exchange for a promise of greater volume.

This exposes the big lie of the ACA promise of "Choice." As has been stated so many times, the choice we really want - the choice of health care professionals and institutions - was taken away by the insurers by means of their restricted networks of providers.

Now choice is being restricted even further by narrowing down these networks of providers. These further restrictions in choice are also being adopted in the employer-sponsored market. It can be anticipated that narrow networks will become the new standard in health plans.

At least the traditional Medicare program does not restrict patients to networks, though the private Medicare Advantage plans do. It is true that physicians can totally opt out of Medicare, but very few do. If an improved version of the traditional Medicare program covered all of us, this injustice of taking away patient choice would not exist.

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