Out-of-Network Physicians: How Prevalent Are Involuntary Use and Cost Transparency?

By Kelly A. Kyanko M.D., M.H.S., Leslie A. Curry Ph.D., M.P.H., Susan H. Busch Ph.D.
HSR, June 2013


To determine the proportion of privately insured adults using an out-of-network physician, the prevalence of involuntary out-of-network use, and whether patients experienced problems with cost transparency using out-of-network physicians.

Data Sources

Nationally representative internet panel survey conducted in February 2011.

Study Design

Screener questions identified a sample of 7,812 individuals in private health insurance plans with provider networks who utilized health services within the prior 12 months. Participants reported details of their inpatient and outpatient contacts with out-of-network physicians. An inpatient out-of-network contact was defined as involuntary if: (1) it was due to a medical emergency; (2) the physician’s out-of-network status was unknown at the time of the contact; or (3) an attempt was made to find an in-network physician in the hospital but none was available. Outpatient contacts were only defined as involuntary if the physician’s out-of-network status was unknown at the time of the contact.

Principal Findings

Eight percent of respondents used an out-of-network physician. Approximately 40 percent of individuals using out-of-network physicians experienced involuntary out-of-network care. Among out-of-network physician contacts, 58 percent of inpatient contacts and 15 percent of outpatient contacts were involuntary. The majority of inpatient involuntary contacts were due to medical emergencies (68 percent). In an additional 31 percent, the physician’s out-of-network status was unknown at the time of the contact. Half (52 percent) of individuals using out-of-network services experienced at least one contact with an out-of-network physician where cost was not transparent at the time of care.


The frequency of involuntary out-of-network care is not inconsequential. Policy interventions can increase receipt of cost information prior to using out-of-network physician services, but they may be less helpful when patients have constrained physician choice due to emergent problems or limited in-hospital physician networks.


An important role of private health insurers is to control prices through provider contracting. The current trend is to narrow their networks of providers even more. This allows them to further squeeze payments to the providers, in exchange for reducing the numbers of their competitors. If that will slow the increase in insurance premiums, then shouldn’t patients be supportive? No, and here’s why.

When patients obtain their care outside of provider networks, they are inflicted with severe financial penalties, sometimes receiving no coverage at all, plus losing the controlled rates that the insurers have negotiated. This study shows that using out-of-network providers is frequently unavoidable. The problem is particularly severe with in-hospital care, adding to the already burdensome expenditures for high-deductibles and coinsurance.

This is a direct result of placing private insurers in the role of financial intermediaries for our health care. They profit by selling us an inordinate amount of administrative services that we don’t want and shouldn’t need, while penalizing us for obtaining care that we need when we are unable to access providers within their narrow networks.

The model is all wrong. We need to dump the intrusive and wasteful private insurers who are forcing on us services that we don’t want but have to pay for – like taking away our choice under threat of financial penalty. We need to replace them with our own public program that is designed to ensure that we get the care we need, without penalizing us for doing so.