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Keywords:

  • Managed care;
  • out-of-network;
  • balance billing;
  • health reform;
  • cost transparency

Objective

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.

Conclusions

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.