Review Health Plans With Reference-Based Reimbursement Designs Under New Agency FAQ Guidance

Employer and other sponsors, insurers and administrators of non-grandfathered group health plans that pay a fixed amount for a particular procedure (for example, a knee replacement) where network providers have agreed to accept that referenced amount as payment in full (“reference-based pricing”) should verify their use of these practices complies in design and administration with the additional guidance on the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act (ACA) out-of-pocket maximum rules in the new FAQs About Affordable Care Act Implementation (Part XXI) (FAQ XXI) published October 10, 2014 and other FAQs on the allowable use of reference-based pricing jointly published by the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Treasury (collectively, the Departments).

As a part of the annual cost-sharing limits enacted as part of ACA, Public Health Service (PHS) Act section 2707(b) requires non-grandfathered group health plans to have individual’s maximum out-of-pocket (MOOP) limit for essential health benefits of not more than $6,600 for self-only coverage and $13,200 for coverage other than self-only coverage.

In addressing the use of reference-based pricing and other similar arrangements in earlier FAQs, the Departments expressed concern that some plans might misuse these provisions as a subterfuge for circumventing ACA’s cost-sharing limitations. At the same time, the Departments also acknowledge that properly used, reference-based pricing arrangements could help promote access to quality services on a more affordable basis for plan participants. Accordingly, the Departments in earlier FAQ guidance stated that pending further guidance the Departments would not treat a large group market plan issuer or self-insured group health plan that uses a reference-based pricing design as failing to comply with the MOOP requirements of PHS Act § 2707(b) solely because the plan or issuer treats providers that accept the reference amount as the only in-network providers, as long as the plan or issuer uses a reasonable method to ensure that it offers adequate access to quality providers but solicited comments on the standards that should apply to ensure that plans using reference-based pricing provide meaningful access to medically appropriate, quality care to prevent these arrangements’ use as a subterfuge to avoid ACA’s MOOP limits. See e.g. Affordable Care Act Implementation FAQs, Part XII, Q2; See Affordable Care Act Implementation FAQs, Part XVIII, Q2-Q5; Affordable Care Act Implementation FAQs, Part XIX, Q2-Q4; Affordable Care Act Implementation FAQs, Part XIX, Q4;

FAQ XXI published October 10, 2014 follows up on and supplements this prior guidance on reference-based pricing designs as they relate to ACA’s MOOP limitations. With regard to reference-based pricing, FAQ XXI indicates:

FAQ provides more insights of the circumstances that the Departments view as required to ensure that reference-based pricing arrangements comply with ACA’s MOOP limit rules. According to FAQ XXI, pending future guidance, for purposes of enforcing PHS Act section 2707(b)’s MOOP rules, the Departments will consider if the plan makes appropriate disclosures, the type of service subject to reference-based pricing, the plan’s arrangements for ensuring reasonable access, quality standards, and providing appropriate exceptions, and all other facts and circumstances when evaluating for purposes of enforcing ACA’s MOOP and other cost-sharing limitations whether a plan’s reference-based pricing design (or similar network design) that treats providers that accept the reference-based price as the only in-network providers and excludes or limits cost-sharing for services rendered by other providers is using a reasonable method to ensure adequate access to quality providers at the reference price.

Additionally, FAQ XXI also provides some insights about how the Departments intend to apply this facts and circumstances test. For instance, FAQ XXI states that the Departments expect plans using reference-based pricing designs to have:

Standards to ensure that the network is designed to enable the plan to offer benefits for services from high-quality providers at reduced costs, and does not function as a subterfuge for otherwise prohibited limitations on coverage;

  • Procedures to ensure that an adequate number of providers that accept the reference price are available to participants and beneficiaries;
  • Appropriate carve outs to meet ACA’s requirements about emergency services and other federal mandates;
  • Procedures to ensure that an adequate number of providers accepting the reference price meet reasonable quality standards;
  • An easily accessible exceptions process, allowing services rendered by providers that do not accept the reference price to be treated as if the services were provided by a provider that accepts the reference price if access to a provider that accepts the reference price is unavailable within a reasonable wait time or travel distance, the quality of services with respect to a particular individual could be compromised with the reference price provider or the like; and
  • Provides appropriate disclosures.

Concerning the Departments expectations about the disclosures that plans using reference-based pricing should make, FAQ XXI indicates that plans should provide the following disclosures regarding reference-based pricing (or similar network design) to plan participants free of charge.

  • Automatically in the plan’s summary plan description or another similar document should provide information regarding the pricing structure, including a list of services to which the pricing structure applies and the exceptions process.
  • Upon request provide a list of providers that will accept the reference price for each service; a list of providers that will accept a negotiated price above the reference price for each service; and information on the process and underlying data used to ensure that an adequate number of providers accepting the reference price meet reasonable quality standards.

FAQ XXI also cautions that its provisions only address the Department’s treatment of reference-based pricing as it relates to ACA’s cost-sharing requirements, not other requirements of ACA or other provisions of law, and that the Departments plan to monitor the use of reference-based pricing and may provide additional guidance in the future, including guidance relating to requirements other than ACA’s cost sharing requirements.

Given the Guidance in FAQ XXI and the Departments previous FAQs, employers and other sponsors, insurers, and administrators of non-grandfathered health plans using reference-based pricing or other similar designs will want to both ensure that their summary plan descriptions and other communications included the expected disclosures as well as to confirm that their arrangements squarely meet the existing guidance as well as monitor developments for new guidance. Among other things, this review should include a documentation of their prudent review and analysis of the adequacy of the plan and plan disclosures, network access, exception procedures and other required terms and operating procedures.

About Author Cynthia Marcotte Stamer

If you need help evaluating or monitoring the implications of these developments or reviewing or updating your health benefit program for compliance or with any other employment, employee benefit, compensation or internal controls matter, please contact the author of this article, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefits Council, immediate past-Chair and current Welfare Benefit Committee Co-Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPPT Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Arrangements, an ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council Representative, the ABA TIPS Employee Benefit Plan Committee Vice Chair, former ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group Chair, past Southwest Benefits Association Board Member, Employee Benefit News Editorial Advisory Board Member, and a widely published speaker and author,  Ms. Stamer has more than 24 years experience advising businesses, plans, fiduciaries, insurers. plan administrators and other services providers,  and governments on health care, retirement, employment, insurance, and tax program design, administration, defense and policy.   Nationally and internationally known for her creative and highly pragmatic knowledge and work on health benefit and insurance programs, Ms. Stamer’s  experience includes extensive involvement in advising and representing these and other clients on ACA and other health care legislation, regulation, enforcement and administration.

Widely published on health benefit and other related matters, Ms. Stamer’s insights and articles have been published by the HealthLeaders, Modern Health Care, Managed Care Executive, the Bureau of National Affairs, Aspen Publishers, Business Insurance, Employee Benefit News, the Wall Street Journal, the American Bar Association, Aspen Publishers, World At Work, Spencer Publications, SHRM, the International Foundation, Solutions Law Press and many others.

For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience, see

For Added Information and Other Resources

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For Help Or More Information

If you need assistance in auditing or assessing, updating or defending your organization’s compliance, risk manage or other  internal controls practices or actions, please contact the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer here or at (469)767-8872.

Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, management attorney and consultant Ms. Stamer is nationally and internationally recognized for more than 24 years of work helping employers and other management; employee benefit plans and their sponsors, administrators, fiduciaries; employee leasing, recruiting, staffing and other professional employment organizations; and others design, administer and defend innovative workforce, compensation, employee benefit  and management policies and practices. Her experience includes extensive work helping employers implement, audit, manage and defend union-management relations, wage and hour, discrimination and other labor and employment laws, privacy and data security, internal investigation and discipline and other workforce and internal controls policies, procedures and actions.  The Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Committee, a Council Representative on the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, Government Affairs Committee Legislative Chair for the Dallas Human Resources Management Association, and past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, Ms. Stamer works, publishes and speaks extensively on management, reengineering, investigations, human resources and workforce, employee benefits, compensation, internal controls and risk management, federal sentencing guideline and other enforcement resolution actions, and related matters.  She also is recognized for her publications, industry leadership, workshops and presentations on these and other human resources concerns and regularly speaks and conducts training on these matters.Her insights on these and other matters appear in the Bureau of National Affairs, Spencer Publications, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, and many other national and local publications. For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to access other publications by Ms. Stamer see hereor contact Ms. Stamer directly.

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