75% of Obamacare plans in California use narrow networks, study shows

A new study finds that 75% of California’s Obamacare health plans have narrow physician networks — more limited choices than all but three other states. The report examines health plans sold to consumers last year under the Affordable Care Act and shows wide variation in the prevalence of narrow networks across the country.

To hold down premiums under the health law, big insurers such as Anthem Inc. and Blue Shield of California cut the number of doctors and hospitals available to patients.

Consumers often have the ability to search for specific doctors before picking out a policy. But that information doesn’t tell a consumer how restricted an overall network may be for primary-care doctors or specialists.

Covered California, the state’s insurance marketplace, and its participating health plans have said networks have been expanding since the initial rollout in January 2014 to ensure patients’ needs are met. But 18% of exchange policyholders surveyed said a medical provider would not accept them as a new patient.

State and federal regulators have been grappling with how to respond to consumer complaints about skinnier networks and inaccurate information in provider directories. It took considerable time and effort to clean up insurance company provider lists before any analysis could be done.

Better data on exchange networks is essential so regulators can ensure patients have sufficient access to doctors and consumers can determine whether a lower-priced narrow network policy is a good deal.

“Network composition is a major way in which insurance companies can attempt to control costs in the marketplace, and for consumers there is often a tradeoff between access and price,” said the director of health coverage issues at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Health researchers also mapped how narrow networks vary within states with the prevalence far higher, for instance, in several areas of Southern California.

It also differs by plan type. More than 90% of California’s HMO networks for individual coverage were narrow, compared to a third of PPO plans in the state.

*Modified from a LA Times.com article, Covered California, and other online sources.

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