Surprise medical bills are the target of a new law. Here’s how it works : Shots

The No Surprises Act is intended to stop surprise medical bills. It could also slow the growth of health insurance premiums.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP


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J. Scott Applewhite/AP


The No Surprises Act is intended to stop surprise medical bills. It could also slow the growth of health insurance premiums.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The new year brings new protections for patients with private health insurance who will no longer be blindsided by “surprise” medical bills when they unknowingly receive out-of-network care.

The No Surprises Act, passed by Congress in 2020 as part of the coronavirus relief package, takes effect Jan. 1.

It generally forbids insurers from passing along bills from doctors and hospitals that are not covered under a patient’s plan — such bills have often left patients to pay hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars in outstanding fees. Instead, the new law requires health care providers and insurers to work out a deal between themselves.

Here’s how the law will work and how it might affect insurance premiums and the health care industry.

It may slow premium growth

Some observers have speculated that the law will have the unintended consequence of shifting costs and leading to higher insurance premiums. But many policy experts told KHN that, in fact, the opposite may happen: It may slightly slow premium growth.

The reason, said Katie Keith, a research faculty member at the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University, is that a new rule released Sept. 30 by the Biden administration appears to “put a thumb on the scale” to discourage settlements at amounts higher than most insurers generally pay for in-network care.

That rule, which provides more details on the way such out of network disputes will be settled under the No Surprises Act, drew immediate opposition from hospital and physician groups. The American Medical Association called it “an undeserved gift to the insurance industry,” while the American College of Radiology said it “does not reflect real-world payment rates” and warned that relying on it so heavily “will cause large imaging cuts and reduce patient access to care.”

In early December, the AMA, joined by the American Hospital Association, filed a lawsuit challenging a part of that rule that outlines the factors that arbitrators should consider in determining payment amounts for disputed out-of-network bills. The case does not seek to halt the entire law, but does want changes to that provision, which it says unfairly benefits insurers. Later in the month, groups representing emergency physicians, radiologists and anesthesiologists filed a similar lawsuit.

Such tough talk echoes comments made while Congress was hammering out the law.

Unsettled bills will go to arbitration

The No Surprises Act takes aim at a common practice: large, unexpected “balance bills” being sent to insured patients for services such as emergency treatment at out-of-network hospitals or via air ambulance companies. Some patients get bills even after using in-network facilities because they receive care from a doctor there who has not signed on

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