THE DOCTOR CAN’T SEE YOU NOW! In recent months, the top priority for state officials and insurers has been affordable premiums. A smaller panel of doctors and hospitals generally yields lower rates because insurers can negotiate better discounts. Insurers in California’s new health insurance exchange are holding down premiums by limiting choices, raising concerns that patients will struggle to get care.
- Major insurers have limited the number of doctors and hospitals available in California’s new health insurance market. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, for example, is available only on two lower-priced Health Net plans in the state-run market. To hold down premiums, major insurers in California have sharply limited the number of doctors and hospitals available to patients in the state’s new health insurance market opening Oct. 1.
- New data reveal the extent of those cuts in California, a crucial test bed for the federal healthcare law. These diminished medical networks are fueling growing concerns that many patients will still struggle to get care despite the nation’s biggest healthcare expansion in half a century. Consumers could see long wait times, a scarcity of specialists and loss of a longtime doctor. “These narrow networks won’t work because they cut off access for patients,” said Dr. Richard Baker, executive director of the Urban Health Institute at Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles.
- To see the challenges awaiting some consumers, consider Woodland Hills-based insurer Health Net Inc. Across Southern California the company has the lowest rates, with monthly premiums as much as $100 cheaper than the closest competitor in some cases. That will make it a popular choice among some of the 1.4 million Californians expected to purchase coverage in the state exchange next year.
- But Health Net also has the fewest doctors, less than half what some other companies are offering in Southern California, according to a Times analysis of insurance data. In Los Angeles County, for instance, Health Net customers in the state exchange would be limited to 2,316 primary-care doctors and specialists. That’s less than a third of the doctors Health Net offers to workers on employer plans. In San Diego, there are only 204 primary-care doctors to serve Health Net patients.
- Health Net says price will probably matter most to the uninsured and people who buy their own health insurance now, so it built a narrow network to serve those “value seekers.” “We have more than enough doctors for our projected enrollment through 2014, and we have time to adjust if it becomes necessary,” Health Net spokesman Brad Kieffer said. “We continue reaching out to providers, and we are bringing more on board.”
- Other major insurers have pared their list of medical providers too, but not to Health Net’s degree. Statewide, Blue Shield of California says exchange customers will be restricted to about 50% of its regular physician network. In response, California officials have been pressing Health Net and other insurers to add more doctors since companies filed their initial rosters in May. The state exchange, Covered California, says it will monitor enrollment closely once it begins next month and it’s prepared to step in if problems arise.
- Rather than mere head count, officials say they are scrutinizing what capacity physicians have to accept new patients. And to assist consumers, California will enable people to search for specific doctors online during enrollment to determine what, if any, health plans they will be part of in Covered California. “Does the doctor have room for one more patient or 40 patients? It’s about available seats,” Lee said. “We want to make sure every network has enough doctors.”
- In recent months, the top priority for state officials and insurers has been affordable premiums. A smaller panel of doctors and hospitals generally yields lower rates because insurers can negotiate better discounts with providers who receive more patients.
- Insurers and some consumer advocates think people are willing to trade some choice in order to pay less. More employers have been adopting these narrower networks in recent years to trim their own healthcare bills. The California Medical Assn., which represents more than 37,000 doctors statewide, thinks the state is underestimating the difficulties ahead.
- The differences in network size are noticeable across Southern California. Health Net has 920 physicians in Orange County, compared with more than 2,500 for Blue Shield, according to company data. Health Net has fewer than 800 doctors in San Diego County, while nearly 3,000 physicians are available in an Anthem Blue Cross plan.
- In addition to doctors, some big-name hospitals may be left out. A spokesman for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center said the hospital has received many calls from patients who were worried about keeping their access to the hospital and its affiliated doctors in the new health plans next year. Cedars-Sinai is available only on two lower-priced Health Net plans in the state-run market, according to the hospital and insurer. Anthem Blue Cross says that it’s the only insurer that includes UCLA Medical Center and other UC facilities statewide.
- Newly released data show the pricing power of these tighter networks. In Los Angeles County, Health Net is consistently the lowest-cost option for a mid-level Silver plan across various age groups. A family of four in Norwalk earning $65,000 annually would pay $384 a month for a Health Net policy, after taking into account a federal subsidy based on their income. For a policy with identical benefits, Blue Shield was next at $477 a month and Kaiser was the most expensive at $602.
*Modified from a LATimes.com article