Landmark Medical Consumer Protection Law Takes Effect in 2022 / Public News Service

Irina Baranova

Pictures of large medical bills are sometimes shared on social media to show how patients can be blindsided by unexpected costs for care, but as the new year begins, consumers will be offered federal protections to avoid health-care sticker shock.

On Saturday, the No Surprises Act takes effect. Supporters said it will block out-of-network providers from sending large bills to patients who did not choose who cared for them in an emergency situation.

Patricia Kelmar, health care campaigns director for the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), said getting statements in the mail can be very hard for the many Americans who don’t have much in the savings accounts to cover the expenses.

“And when you think about the average out-of-network bill for anesthesia is $1,200, these costs can create a real burden on consumers and can lead to medical debt,” Kelmar explained.

She noted under the law, your bill cannot be sent to collections while you have a complaint under review. Groups such as the American Medical Association have sued the federal government, saying while they back the law, they oppose the arbitration process drawn by regulators. And the North Dakota Health Information Management Association worries it could force smaller providers out of business.

The statewide group said consumer protections are needed, but argued the process caters to larger providers who have more patient volume.

Kelmar contends the law is trying to establish reasonable fees based on average contracted rates in a community.

“We’re seeing higher-than-average, higher-than-market prices from many specialties that use surprise billing as a way to increase their profits,” Kelmar contended.

She added more emergency rooms are being staffed by private-equity firms using contracted specialists.

Groups such as PIRG pointed out while the law will make a difference, they have suggested changes of their own. Kelmar noted the measure addresses air-ambulance service from-out-of-pocket providers, but leaves out ground transport.

“Your ground transportation, the ambulance that we think of when we call 911, those bills from an out-of-network ambulance could still be your financial responsibility,” Kelmar cautioned.

According to federal estimates, the law will impact roughly 10 million surprise medical bills each year. Nearly 30 states have similar protections in place, but policy experts say they’re often limited in scope. North Dakota is among the states without these protections.

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