A Pandemic Silver Lining: Health Care Reform in Massachusetts
On January 1, 2021, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed into law an omnibus healthcare law called “An Act Promoting A Resilient Health Care System That Puts Patients First.” This multi-faceted healthcare law addresses various healthcare issues that have come to light or been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes the codification of some emergency orders from the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic that helped loosen restrictions in order to provide easier access to healthcare. Thematically, the main provisions of the bill include: (1) surprise billing; (2) practitioner scope of practice; (3) telehealth; and (4) healthcare accessibility. First, each of these provisions will be discussed. Then, possible shortcomings of the law will be considered. To conclude, we must question why it took a pandemic to bring commonsense change to Massachusetts healthcare.
The act addresses so-called surprise medical bills, where the charges are higher than the insured individual expected, likely because they inadvertently received care from an out-of-network provider. This can happen if: (1) the insured patient receives care from an out-of-network provider in an emergency situation where the patient has no ability to select the care; or (2) the insured patient receives pre-planned care from an in-network facility, but the services are provided by an out-of-network provider.
Surprise medical billing has been in the spotlight at both state and federal levels. In late 2020, President Trump signed the No Surprises Act which holds consumers harmless from the cost of unanticipated out-of-network medical bills. The act applies to nearly all private health plans offered by employers, as well as insurance policies offered through the federal marketplace, but does not take effect until January 1, 2022. In addition, the federal law does not preempt state law, but instead defers to state requirements around surprise billing. To date, at the state level, 27 states have passed consumer protection laws against surprise medical bills and, in 2020, 5 additional states have passed and will enact or have enacted surprise billing legislation.
The Massachusetts law: (1) requires providers to disclose if they are out-of-network prior to the patient’s admission; (2) requires providers, upon request, to share the amount that the patient will be charged for admission, a procedure, or a service, including costs for services done by an out-of-network provider; (3) requires providers to notify patients if the patient is being referred to an out-of-network provider; (4) prohibits providers from billing insured patients in excess of the typical, applicable coinsurance, copayment, or deductible that would have been charged if services were provided by an in-network provider; and (5) directs the Secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, the Health Policy Commission, Center for Health Information and Analytics, and Division of Insurance to recommend a default rate for out-of-network billing by September 2021.
However, even after the expanded protections against surprise medical billing, Massachusetts is still categorized as a state with partial balance billing protections from The Commonwealth Fund and as a state with a limited approach to surprise billing from The Kaiser Family Foundation. Both organizations have found that to be considered comprehensive, a state must additionally: (1) hold patients harmless, (2) create a dispute resolution process between the insurer and provider; (3) provide a formula that the insurer must apply when determining how much to pay an out-of-network provider; and (4) apply in specific care settings, like emergency departments. The current Massachusetts law’s direction to recommend a default rate for billing is a step in the right direction towards a comprehensive approach to surprise medical billing, but will need to be taken further.
Practitioner Scope of Practice
The Massachusetts act also makes statutory changes to the scope of practice for several categories of health care practitioners. The act codified previous Department of Public Health emergency administrative orders allowing advanced practice registered nurses (“APRNs”), including nurse anesthetists, nurse practitioners, and psychiatric nurse mental health clinical specialists to have: (1) expanded practice at mental health facilities; and (2) independent prescriptive practice. To qualify for the expanded scope of practice provision, the APRNs must meet specific qualifications, including at least two previous years of supervised practice under a physician. The emergency orders were in response to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but will now extend past the pandemic due to the act.
The act also expands scope of practice for optometrists. Optometrists now have prescriptive authority and can treat glaucoma. The act also creates an option for reciprocity for optometrists with licensure in other states. Additionally, psychiatric nurse mental health clinical specialists have expanded authority for determinations on psychiatric evaluations, restraints, and hospitalizations. Finally, the act recognizes the role of pharmacists, who are now able to integrate with coordinated care teams to review medications and identify areas of clinical improvement.
The act also codifies earlier COVID-19-related emergency changes to telemedicine. At the federal level, the Department of Health and Human Services made access to telehealth easier through guidance on HIPAA flexibility, allowing entities to file waivers with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services related to originating sites, cross-state telemedicine, provision of care to new patients through telehealth, and billing for telehealth services as though they were in-person. At the state level, a Massachusetts emergency order required insurers to cover all medically necessary telehealth services and required that these services be reimbursed at the same rate as in-person services, creating pay parity between telehealth and in-person visits.
The new Massachusetts act: (1) updates the definition of “telehealth” to include audio-only services; (2) eliminates the requirement for providers to show barriers to in-person care or limitations on location settings in order to access telehealth services; (3) prohibits insurers from declining coverage of healthcare services solely because the services were provided through telehealth as long as the healthcare service would otherwise have been covered in-person and it may be appropriately provided through telehealth; (4) requires pay parity for copays and deductibles for in-person and telehealth services, plus extends the temporary emergency order for pay parity for 90 days after the expiration of the COVID-19 state of emergency in Massachusetts; and (5) requires licensed hospitals, insurers, health maintenance organizations (“HMOs”), and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services to ensure that the pay rate for in-network providers of behavioral health services and chronic disease management services provided via telehealth be no less than the rate of payment for the same services when provided in person.
The act’s provisions related to healthcare accessibility are wide and varied. The act addresses broad healthcare issues that have posed problems for many years, but have been exacerbated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Two relevant provisions include: (1) Massachusetts Medicaid or MassHealth patients no longer need to seek referrals from a primary care provider to an urgent care visit; and (2) all insurers, including MassHealth, must cover all COVID-19 related emergency, inpatient, and cognitive rehabilitation services, plus they must cover all medically necessary COVID-19 testing.
Though this bill tackles many issues that public health experts have promoted for years, there are always additional healthcare problems to be solved. Governor Baker notes that he hopes, in future years, to focus on addiction services, behavioral health, primary care and geriatric services, and prescription drug prices.
However, the law is not without its detractors. The Massachusetts Medical Society, for instance, while applauding many provisions, took issue with: (1) the added burden on physicians to notify patients about possible out-of-network care and billing; (2) the general increased scope of practice for nurse practitioners, psychiatric nurse mental health clinical specialists, and certified registered nurse anesthetists, arguing that a physician-led team is the best care team; and (3) the lack of permanent pay parity for all telehealth services. Thus, it is likely that the law will face some pushback from physicians. Additionally, as seen with the surprise billing provisions, there are ways that the state could have gone further to provide more patient protection and access to healthcare.
The question remains, however. Why did it take a pandemic to bring about common-sense healthcare changes to Massachusetts? The answer, I think, lies in the shared experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. Governor Charlie Baker, while signing the bill into law, said that the “silver lining” of the pandemic has been that healthcare reforms were tested and proved effective, generating momentum to create long-lasting change for the future. There’s more to it than that. Even before the pandemic, we’ve all seen and heard from friends and family that the healthcare system is broken and now we’ve all seen how the pandemic has only exacerbated that. Massachusetts residents and members of the legislature have seen how barriers to care – like difficulties paying off a surprise medical bill and having to go into medical debt, difficulties getting an appointment with your physician because they’re busy with the pandemic but also then being unable to see an APRN for care, or an inability to access telehealth when you’re scared of going for in-person care in the midst of a pandemic – has affected our loved ones throughout the pandemic. It’s this shared experience and now shared understanding of the hardships of our existing healthcare system that drove the healthcare reforms and success of this bill.