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Patient Experiences with Involuntary Out-of-Network Charges

Keywords: Qualitative methods;managed care;out-of-network care;health policy

Background: Approximately 40 percent of individuals using out-of-network physicians experience involuntary out-of-network care, leading to unexpected and sometimes burdensome financial charges. Despite its prevalence, research on patient experiences with involuntary out-of-network care is limited. Greater understanding of patient experiences may inform policy solutions to address this issue.

Objective: To characterize the experiences of patients who encountered involuntary out-of-network physician charges.

Methods: Qualitative study using 26 in-depth telephone interviews with a semi-structured interview guide. Participants were a purposeful sample of privately insured adults from across the United States who experienced involuntary out-of-network care. They were diverse with regard to income level, education, and health status. Recurrent themes were generated using the constant comparison method of data analysis by a multidisciplinary team.

Results: Four themes characterize the perspective of individuals who experienced involuntary out-of-network physician charges: (1) responsibilities and mechanisms for determining network participation are not transparent; (2) physician procedures for billing and disclosure of physician out-of-network status are inconsistent; (3) serious illness requiring emergency care or hospitalization precludes ability to choose a physician or confirm network participation; and (4) resources for mediation of involuntary charges once they occur are not available.

Conclusions: Our data reveal that patient education may not be sufficient to reduce the prevalence and financial burden of involuntary out-of-network care. Participants described experiencing involuntary out-of-network health care charges due to system-level failures. As policy makers seek solutions, our findings suggest several potential areas of further consideration such as standardization of processes to disclose that a physician is out-of-network, holding patients harmless not only for out-of-network emergency room care but also for non-elective hospitalization, and designation of a mediator for involuntary charges.

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