Calif. Court Rules Insurer Payments Should Reflect Value of Care

California Healthline, June 16, 2014

An appellate court ruling in Fresno last week could change the way California hospitals and health insurers enter into contracts and negotiate payments for services, the Sacramento Business Journal reports.

Background on Case

The lawsuit between Children’s Hospital Central California and Anthem Blue Cross involved a dispute over insurer reimbursement rates for hospital services.

In 2007, the hospital and insurer for about 10 months were unable to reach an agreement to renew a contract setting reimbursement rates for hospital services. During that time, federal and state laws required that Children’s Hospital continue to provide emergency care to Anthem beneficiaries.

The hospital later billed Anthem for post-stabilization emergency medical care that took place during the 10-month contract gap. In the billing, the hospital listed the full rate of services included in its “chargemaster” document instead of the usual discounted rate based on volume. In total, the hospital charged Anthem $10.8 million for care provided to 896 beneficiaries.

Anthem paid the hospital about $4.2 million based on Medi-Cal rates. Medi-Cal is California’s Medicaid program.

Children’s Hospital filed a lawsuit over the difference, and a jury awarded the hospital $6.6 million. Anthem then filed an appeal.

Details of Ruling

On Tuesday, the Fifth District Court of Appeals ruled that insurers are not required to reimburse hospitals for amounts that are more than the actual value of services.

The ruling states that the hospital “rarely received payment based on [their] published chargemaster rates.” Therefore, the trial court should have allowed Anthem to present evidence of the value of post-stabilization emergency services.

The appeals court ordered a new trial between Children’s Hospital and Anthem to establish damages that reflect the “reasonable value” of services, as opposed to the higher costs included on hospital’s bill to the insurer.

Implications

Dan Baxter, an attorney representing Anthem, said, “This ruling will absolutely change the landscape between hospitals and health plans in litigation going forward.” He added, “It’s a clear-cut California case we didn’t have until now — finally — that says in no uncertain terms you can consider a full body of information, not just billed charges.”

However, Glenn Solomon, an attorney representing Children’s Hospital, said the ruling could result in insurers paying contract rates for health care services without actually establishing a contract.

Solomon said, “If a health plan can get the benefit of contracted rates without actually engaging in a contract themselves, there’s less incentive for them to enter into a contract in the first place,” adding, “That’s not just bad for hospitals. It’s bad for all of California” (Robertson, Sacramento Business Journal, 6/13).

http://www.californiahealthline.org/articles/2014/6/16/calif-court-rules…

This case centers around a dispute on whether an insurer pays list rates (chargemaster prices) or prior contracted rates during an interval in which the insurer/hospital contract had lapsed. But there is a much more important issue here: Should an insurer be able to dictate unilaterally to a hospital what rates will be paid during a time in which there is no contract with the hospital?

Regarding the particulars of this case, hospital chargemaster rates are usually pie-in-the-sky rates that nobody pays. The insurer, Anthem Blue Cross Medi-Cal managed care, should be able to negotiate rates down. On the other hand, Medicaid (Medi-Cal) rates in California are the lowest in the nation and result in a loss for most providers, so Children’s Hospital Central California should be able to negotiate up the rates for “post-stabilization emergency services” when it has no contract with the insurer. It appears that the intent of this court ruling was to prevent unreasonably high, binding rates from being set arbitrarily by hospital chargemaster programmers.

Although other laws apply, this ruling seems to be a step towards allowing private insurers to dictate rates when no contract is in force. It would be untenable if private insurers could enforce provisions of a contract that they would like to have without the necessity of formally contracting with the providers.

This is no way to set payment rates. Control should be completely removed from the private insurers. They should be dismissed from the health care financing scene anyway since they waste resources diverted to their intrusive exploitations. We also know that providers should not be allowed to set their own rates. During the implementation of Medicare, physicians were paid based on usual, customary and reasonable fees, and they responded by driving fees up exponentially. No, we know from the experience of other countries that the government must be involved if we expect fair pricing.

Under a single payer system, whether setting global budgets for hospitals or negotiating rates for professional services or health care products, including pharmaceuticals, our own government stewards would be there to represent us as patients and as taxpayers. As public servants, they would not be representing their own personal interests. Payments would be based on legitimate costs and fair margins.

Besides receiving greater value, we would be eliminating the costs and grief of the profound administrative waste of our current fragmented, dysfunctional financing system. That alone should be enough for us to decide to make the change.