Insurers Reap Hidden Fees by Slashing Payments. You May Get the Bill.

NY TIMES, Chris Hamby, May 6, 2024

A little-known data firm helps health insurers make more when less of an out-of-network claim gets paid. Patients can be on the hook for the difference.

Chris Hamby reviewed more than 50,000 pages of documents and interviewed more than 100 people for this article. The New York Times also petitioned two federal courts for materials under seal.

Published April 7, 2024Updated April 9, 2024

Weeks after undergoing heart surgery, Gail Lawson found herself back in an operating room. Her incision wasn’t healing, and an infection was spreading.

At a hospital in Ridgewood, N.J., Dr. Sidney Rabinowitz performed a complex, hourslong procedure to repair tissue and close the wound. While recuperating, Ms. Lawson phoned the doctor’s office in a panic. He returned the call himself and squeezed her in for an appointment the next day.

“He was just so good with me, so patient, so kind,” she said.

But the doctor was not in her insurance plan’s network of providers, leaving his bill open to negotiation by her insurer. Once back on her feet, Ms. Lawson received a letter from the insurer, UnitedHealthcare, advising that Dr. Rabinowitz would be paid $5,449.27 — a small fraction of what he had billed the insurance company. That left Ms. Lawson with a bill of more than $100,000.

“I’m thinking to myself, ‘But this is why I had insurance,’” said Ms. Lawson, who is fighting UnitedHealthcare over the balance. “They take out, what, $300 or $400 a month? Well, why aren’t you people paying these bills?”

The answer is a little-known data analytics firm called MultiPlan. It works with UnitedHealthcare, Cigna, Aetna and other big insurers to decide how much so-called out-of-network medical providers should be paid. It promises to help contain medical costs using fair and independent analysis.

But a New York Times investigation, based on interviews and confidential documents, shows that MultiPlan and the insurance companies have a large and mostly hidden financial incentive to cut those reimbursements as much as possible, even if it means saddling patients with large bills. The formula for MultiPlan and the insurance companies is simple: The smaller the reimbursement, the larger their fee.

Here’s how it works: The most common way Americans get health coverage is through employers that “self-fund,” meaning they pay for their workers’ medical care with their own money. The employers contract with insurance companies to administer the plans and process claims. Most medical visits are with providers in a plan’s network, with rates set in advance.

But when employees see a provider outside the network, as Ms. Lawson did, many insurance companies consult with MultiPlan, which typically recommends that the employer pay less than the provider billed. The difference between the bill and the sum actually paid amounts to a savings for the employer. But, The Times found, it means big money for MultiPlan and the insurer, since both companies often charge the employer a percentage of the savings as a processing fee.

Read More: NY Times