For once, Congress has provided the people of Kansas a holiday miracle. It has decided not to enact legislation that will exacerbate the state’s already significant doctor shortage.
Alarmingly, Kansas ranks 41st in the nation for supply of doctors, a particularly acute problem in rural areas of our state. Over 30% of Kansas healthcare professionals are nearing retirement, putting Kansas near the 35th-percentile for likelihood of having a physician shortage.
Kansas has other health care problems too. One such problem is surprise medical billing, which occurs when an insured patient inadvertently receives medical care from an out-of-network provider. Patients often receive surprise medical bills during an emergency in which they have no choice of which ambulance or emergency room to use. In Kansas, this problem is particularly pronounced. According to a recent report, an astounding 24% of emergency room visits in the state end in a surprise medical bill.
Consumers with insurance shouldn’t have to pay out of pocket in scenarios outside of their control. At the same time, though, Congress was considering passing a bill before the holidays that purported to “fix” the surprise medical billing issue by making Kansas’ doctor shortage worse.
The bill some were pushing to advance before December recess is called the Lower Health Care Costs Act (LHCC). It claimed to tackle the issue of surprise medical billing through imposition of price controls on the health care market, capping all out-of-network bills at median in-network rates. Price controls have never worked in the history of any economy, and the LHCC’s won’t either. The bill would only serve to worsen the issue by giving more power to Big Health Insurance companies with a history of refusing to pay emergency room bills.
If passed, all these insurance companies would have to do to rig the system against consumers is take the most high-skilled doctors off their networks -- pushing the median in-network rate lower and lower until “health care coverage” covers nothing of the sort. The number of doctors Kansas residents can see would dwindle even further. These are the sorts of problems that the LHCC would either fail to address or actively exacerbate.
Luckily, this December congressional health care scare has fizzled out.
The death of the LHCC is good news. At the same time, however, surprise medical billing is still a serious issue in need of addressing. So, what can be done?
In the new year, instead of trying to implement price control measures, commonsense solutions, such as independent arbitration, could be utilized to protect consumers from surprise medical bills. Within an arbitration system, an independent arbiter would select a price for a bill following bids from both a hospital and insurance company for medical services, protecting patients from undue financial hardships while preserving free market principles. Legislation in Congress already exists that proposes this solution, such as Senator Cassidy’s STOP Surprise Medical Bills Act, which has received significant, bipartisan support.
With an issue as complicated as surprise medical billing, a quick fix, confused “compromise” before the holiday is not the solution constituents need. Instead, Americans deserve better. Hopefully, when Congress returns to work in 2020, they will do their job and send a workable solution to President Trump’s desk for his signature.
Tim Huelskamp served as the U.S. representative for Kansas’s 1st congressional district from 2011-2017.