States largely ignoring network inadequacies

Implementation of the Affordable Care Act: Cross-Cutting Issues: Six-State Case Study on Network Adequacy

By Sabrina Corlette, Kevin Lucia, and Sandy Ahn
Urban Institute, September 2014

During the transition to new health plans and new marketplaces under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), many insurers revamped their approach to network design, and many now offer narrower provider networks than they have in the past. In this study for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s project to monitor ACA implementation, researchers assessed network changes and efforts at regulatory oversight in six states: Colorado, Maryland, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Virginia. Researchers found that insurers made significant

changes to the provider networks of their individual market plans, both inside and outside the marketplaces, and that insurers took varying approaches to network design. Across all six states, insurers and state officials alike reported consumer and provider confusion about which plan networks included which providers, but most have received few consumer complaints about their ability to obtain in-network services. While three of the six states have taken action to improve provider directories, it appears unlikely that state legislatures, officials and regulators will dramatically change network adequacy standards, at least in the short-term.


Insurers have used—and are likely to continue to use— network design to curb costs and offer customers a more affordable premium. This was a clear trend in the individual market as insurers approached the 2014 plan year, and some of our informants believe it will soon extend to the group market as employers look for ways to reduce premiums. However, despite concerns among some regulators, consumer advocates, and providers that overly narrow networks could harm quality of care and place consumers at significant financial risk, most of our study states are not planning to significantly change their oversight of plan networks. Though consumers reported problems with inaccurate provider directories and a lack of consumer-friendly, comparable information about the scope of plan networks, only half of our study states report requiring insurers to improve the information made available to consumers. At the same time, state officials and insurers also reported that consumers were generally not complaining about difficulty obtaining needed care from providers. Consequently, most state legislatures, officials and regulators are unlikely to change network adequacy standards, at least in the short-term.



By Don McCanne, MD

Private insurers use narrow networks of physicians and hospitals so that they can negotiate more favorable provider rates which then supposedly allows them to keep their insurance premiums more competitive. The trade-off is that patients lose their choice of providers and increase the risk that they will suffer severe financial penalties because of unavoidable circumstances wherein care is obtained out of network, or worse, care is not received at all because of impaired access.

The use of narrow networks will cause harm to many patients. Yet, according to this report, for the present, “most state legislatures, officials and regulators are unlikely to change network adequacy standards.” Also, although provider directories are notoriously inaccurate, “only half of our study states report requiring insurers to improve the information made available to consumers.”

How much do the insurers really save by using narrow networks? The savings is not the difference between the prices specified by the providers and the amount contracted with the narrow network providers. Insurers already receive sharp discounts from the providers in their broad networks. So the savings is only the very modest additional amount squeezed out of those who contract for the more exclusive narrower networks. That savings is surely not worth the impaired access, loss of choice, and potential financial hardship brought by narrow networks.

With a single payer system, fair payments apply to all physicians and hospitals, therefore there is no need to establish separate networks. The one network is the entire health care delivery system (except for those who choose integrated delivery systems such as Kaiser Permanente). Government administered pricing is far more patient friendly than market-based manipulations, and isn't the patient what it is all about?