Top health care issue shifts from coverage in 2014 to provider access in 2015

For implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, 2014 was the year of increasing medical coverage. The rate of those lacking coverage in 2014 fell to its lowest level in seven years, driven in large part by states that have fully implemented the law, California Heathline reported this week. States that fully implemented the ACA saw their uninsured rates decline by almost twice the rate as states that did not do so, according to the story.

For 2015, the focus is shifting to how well expanded coverage ensures access to and payment for care. In California – a state that has fully implemented the Affordable Care Act by establishing its own state health benefit exchange and expanding Medicaid eligibility – these issues are coming into full play.

Underlying them are economic tensions in both commercial individual coverage and Medicaid. In the former, they arise from the tradeoff of narrow provider networks in commercial individual health plans in order to keep premium rates down, particularly in exchange qualified health plans that must offer standardized benefits. (Narrow networks have also increased patients’ risk of medical bankruptcy due to “balance billing” when they receive care and particularly emergency care from providers outside of their plan’s network as Kaiser Health News reports). Provider resistance to the high volume/lower reimbursement model of these networks is manifesting in complaints from those enrolled in exchange plans that their coverage is being declined when they seek care amid provider network volatility and churn. That has drawn attention in all three branches of government as California Healthline reported earlier this month:

California has addressed the issue on all fronts, from consumer groups launching suits against insurers over allegedly inadequate provider networks, lawmakers taking legislative action and state regulators implementing immediate policy changes.

In October 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a bill (SB 964) that increased oversight of insurers’ provider networks by authorizing the state Department of Managed Health Care to review insurers’ annual report on timeliness compliance. More recently, state Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) has proposed a bill (SB 137) that would require insurers to update their provider directories on a weekly basis, among other requirements.

Meanwhile, Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones (D) released regulations on Jan. 5 that his office said were designed “to address the deficiencies in the market we have been seeing.”

Department of Insurance officials noted that they have received complaints from consumers about difficulty getting doctor appointments, traveling long distances to access in-network care and encountering erroneous provider directories. Relatedly, multiple suits have been launched against Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield of California over the issue.

In the Medicaid segment that covers about 1 in 3 California residents, burgeoning enrollments are outstripping available providers. As with commercial individual coverage, provider dissatisfaction with reimbursement rates is widely considered a key contributing factor. A California Healthcare Foundation study issued in August 2014 found the ratio of primary care physicians to Medi-Cal enrollees in 2011 and 2013 (35 to 49 per 100,000 enrollees) fell well short of the federal Health Services and Resource Administration’s guidelines of 60 to 80 per 100,000 enrollees. “Without a large increase in the number of primary care physicians participating in Medi-Cal or another means of increasing efficiency in primary care, such as greater use of nonphysician clinicians or phone and electronic visits, Medi-Cal beneficiaries are likely to have difficulty accessing primary care,” the study concludes.

While low Medi-Cal reimbursement rates are linked to the lack of access to PCPs, the study notes it did not find an association with unmet health care needs or preventative services. It also suggested a greater role for community health centers since they receive higher Medi-Cal reimbursement rates than private practice physicians.


Need a speaker or webinar presenter on the Affordable Care Act and the outlook for health care reform? Contact Pilot Healthcare Strategies Principal Fred Pilot by email or call 530-295-1473. 

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Frederick Pilot

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