By Chad Terhune
Los Angeles Times, September 14, 2013
The doctor can’t see you now.
To hold down premiums, major insurers in California have sharply limited the number of doctors and hospitals available to patients in the state’s new health insurance market opening Oct. 1.
New data reveal the extent of those cuts in California, a crucial test bed for the federal healthcare law.
Consumers could see long wait times, a scarcity of specialists and loss of a longtime doctor.
“These narrow networks won’t work because they cut off access for patients,” said Dr. Richard Baker, executive director of the Urban Health Institute at Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles.
To see the challenges awaiting some consumers, consider Woodland Hills-based insurer Health Net Inc.
Across Southern California the company has the lowest rates, with monthly premiums as much as $100 cheaper than the closest competitor in some cases. That will make it a popular choice among some of the 1.4 million Californians expected to purchase coverage in the state exchange next year.
But Health Net also has the fewest doctors, less than half what some other companies are offering in Southern California, according to a Times analysis of insurance data.
In Los Angeles County, for instance, Health Net customers in the state exchange would be limited to 2,316 primary-care doctors and specialists. That’s less than a third of the doctors Health Net offers to workers on employer plans.
Other major insurers have pared their list of medical providers too, but not to Health Net’s degree. Statewide, Blue Shield of California says exchange customers will be restricted to about 50% of its regular physician network.
“We are nervous about these narrow networks,” said Donald Crane, chief executive of the California Assn. of Physician Groups. “It was all about price. But at what cost in terms of quality and access? Is this contrary to the purpose of the Affordable Care Act?”
Insurers and their number of doctors in L.A. County for state health exchange:
2,316 Health Net
3,855 Anthem Blue Cross
4,946 L.A. Care
6,559 Blue Shield PPO
8,839 Anthem EPO
28,181 Number of licensed physicians in L.A. County (MBC)
By Don McCanne, M.D.
These new data on use of narrow provider networks in state insurance exchanges, using Los Angeles County as an example, are important because they show us the extent to which this concept is being applied. Narrow provider networks reduce health care spending by limiting patient access to low cost providers – taking away choice – and by impairing access though supply-side contractions, that is, rationing care by limiting the supply of covered health care providers.
Another table accompanying the Los Angeles Times article (available at the link above) lists premiums for typical policies issued by these insurers for the benchmark silver plans. When comparing premiums with the numbers of physicians in the network, there are several interesting observations. Health Net, with the fewest number of physicians in their network, has the lowest premiums – no surprise. Blue Shield, California’s nonprofit Blues plan, has premiums on the lower end though it has a much larger number of physicians than does for-profit Anthem Blue Cross, yet their premiums are similar. The nonprofit seems to be more concerned about patient access whereas the for-profit seems to be concerned more about profits. However, Anthem’s EPO (exclusive provider organization) offers a larger choice in providers but extracts a much larger premium for that coverage. Comparing Anthem’s two products, it looks like if you want an accessible doctor, you’re going to have to pay for that right. Considering that Kaiser is a closed, integrated health system, it does have a fairly decent number of physicians, but it also has the highest premiums. It is likely that Kaiser’s premiums are not high because of the number of physicians, but rather they are high to prevent destabilization of their business model by allowing too many new enrollees which might strain their capacity.
Health Net’s silver plan premiums are set far enough below the others such that they will be very attractive for shoppers in the insurance exchange. The bronze plans have even lower premiums and will also be attractive. Most shoppers will be relatively healthy and will select their plans based on the premium – not on the physician networks nor on the out-of-pocket costs they would face if major health problems were to develop. Some of these people will become ill or suffer significant injuries. At that time they will discover that their choices of providers are too limited, that access may be impaired because the physicians are too busy or because they are too far away, and that the out-of-pocket expenses to which they are exposed will cause financial hardships.
Leave policy decisions to private insurers and they will always select policies that will advance their business models as opposed to policies that would provide optimal access, quality and affordability for patients. Having cheap premiums is no solution when you can’t get a doctor when you need one, and, when you finally do, you’re left broke.
Single payer would have avoided all of this, and it still can.