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Out-of-pocket costs rising even as patients transition to lower-cost care settings

Patients saw increases of up to 12% in their out-of-pocket responsibilities for inpatient, outpatient and ED care in 2018.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

A new TransUnion Healthcare analysis has found that most patients likely felt a bigger pinch to their wallets as out-of-pocket costs across all settings of care increased in 2018. The new findings were made public yesterday at the 2019 Healthcare Financial Management Association Annual Conference in Orlando.

The analysis reveals that patients experienced annual increases of up to 12% in their out-of-pocket responsibilities for inpatient, outpatient and emergency department care last year.

In 2017, the average inpatient cost was $4,068; the average outpatient cost was $990; and the average emergency department cost was $577.

In 2018, the average inpatient cost was $4,659; the average outpatient cost was $1,109; and the average emergency department cost was $617.

FUELING THE TREND

There are certain factors that are influencing this trend, according to Jonathan Wiik, principal of healthcare strategy at TransUnion Healthcare.

"Patients are becoming more aware that emergency care is expensive and somewhat inefficient," Wiik said. "No one wants to go to the emergency room unless we have to, because we don't want to deal with the time there or the expense. They aren't the best place to get primary or even urgent care."

Another factor, he said, is that providers realize the emergency department is a care setting of last resort for many. Providers want to make sure that have room in the ED for cases that are real emergencies, so they're essentially curating their patients, steering patients to the most cost effective settings possible -- often primary care, which is the least expensive setting.

Noting that the biggest annual increases were in inpatient and outpatient care, Wiik said that was largely a function of utilization and just a general wariness, in addition to the fact that most EDs have pretty flat contracts. Financial communication with patients is also an issue.

"Most people can't afford the average out-of-pocket, so providers are really trying to educate patients as early as they can about those costs," said Wiik. "Emergency care is a really hard place to educate people on finances, let alone collect on them."

RISING COSTS

The analysis found that, during a hospital visit, patients are likely experiencing cost increases that continue the trend of higher out-of-pocket costs. About 59% of patients in 2018 had an average out-of-pocket expense between $501 and $1,000 during a healthcare visit. This was a dramatic increase from 39% in 2017. Conversely, the number of patients that had an average out- of-pocket expense of $500 or below decreased from 49% in 2017 to 36% in 2018.

And with out-of-pocket costs increasing, the trend toward consumerism is growing as more patients, payers and providers transition to lower cost settings of care.

One example: Inpatient care, traditionally the most expensive healthcare option, has seen a leveling off with the percentage of price estimates remaining at 8% between 2017 and 2018. The percentage of outpatient services estimates, generally about one-quarter of the cost of inpatient services, rose in that same timeframe from 65% to 73%.

"Patients are likely seeing more providers and payers recommending that they take advantage of cost-effective healthcare options, which brings down costs for all parties," said Wiik. "This is especially important as costs continue to rise in all areas of healthcare, particularly in inpatient, outpatient and emergency department services."

This is having an impact on providers, payers and patients, he said.

"Let's pretend Joanna had an MRI in her head, and that ran $3,200. That might have been paid by Blue Cross Blue Shield, and $100 out of Joanna's pocket. Now Joanna's paying $300. Most patients don't look up how much the MRI's going to be. They just get the bill later and try to figure it out. I think the patient portion of the bill is going to be in the 35, 40% range very soon. What that means is we're quickly approaching half of the bill coming from the patient and half from the payer. That's not insurance anymore, that's a bank account."

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study indicated that 34% of patients are finding it difficult to pay their deductible before insurance kicks in. In addition to patients being challenged to make payments, the trend is that providers are also feeling the pressure of increased denial rates and write-offs, which is increasing bad debt.

Considering these factors together -- increased out-of-pocket expenses, a patient's challenge to make payment, and increased denial rates -- collecting payments from all payers is critical for providers. In order for providers to ensure they receive payment for the patient-care services rendered, it is vital that they implement strategies that maximize reimbursements.
 

Twitter: @JELagasse

Email the writer: jeff.lagasse@himssmedia.com