Read this article as it appeared in ROI-NJ on April 30, 2018
Reining in health care costs continues to be a challenge for many corporations and self-funded plans.
The story isn’t any different for the state of New Jersey, the largest employer in the state.
State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge) is trying to find new solutions — and potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in savings for the state — by addressing the issue in a different way: Paying closer attention to how the state pays its contracted plan managers.
Last week, in a letter to state Treasurer Elizabeth Muoio, Sarlo asked the Department of the Treasury to determine if the health insurers are keeping any recovered funds, through savings from appeals, and if the plans are charging the state anything additional to what they pay the providers.
Sarlo also asked about surcharges related to out-of-state visits by plan members, and whether or not the state can cap those.
In addition, he asked if the state is auditing Aetna and Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, the third-party administrators of the State Health Benefits Plan and School Employers’ Benefits Plan, which together cover more than 600,000 current and retired state employees and cost the state $6 billion in 2016 alone.
The contract for both is set to expire in June, and a request for proposals with the same rules and requirements as the existing contract is currently out for bid.
And, while the RFP adds to the timeliness of Sarlo’s request, it was not necessarily the impetus.
Legislators began looking into the process in January after a New Jersey doctor, Rajnik “Raj” Raab, alerted them to a white paper he paid a California-based health care reimbursement recovery firm, AVYM, to produce.
In the six-page white paper, the firm said New Jersey could save up to $1 billion annually.
AVYM said such huge savings are possible because third-party administrators may not be paying back the state any savings they receive over time from claim appeals.
Sarlo, the deputy majority leader who serves as the chair of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, told ROI-NJ how such a scenario could play out.
“Here’s what we think happens,” he said. “A public worker in town XYZ cuts his hand, severs his hand, it’s a serious accident. He incurs $50,000 worth of bills. He petitions the fund representing the town … we pay. Now they (insurers) scrutinize and, over time, after arguing back and forth, reduce it to only $40,000.”
And, if the reduced amount comes after the $50,000 has already been paid to the insurers, there is no way to check or prove the extra $10,000 is returned the state.
Sarlo said there is no evidence that the state has ever received a refund from the insurers.
The contract between the state of New Jersey and Aetna and Horizon, which ROI-NJ obtained through an Open Public Records Act request, shows that the practice in question is prohibited, and that the state can audit the payments at any time.
Representatives from Horizon and Aetna declined or did not return requests for comment on the issue, pointing instead to the agreements they have with the state.
The contract with the insurers addresses potential overpayments.
According to the contract, the state only reimburses the insurer after the payment is made.
“The (insurer) will be reimbursed for claim checks and electronic fund transfers to providers that have cleared the (insurer’s) bank account by the (insurer) transmitting the total amount cleared via electronic mail or facsimile machine to the Commission by 11:00 a.m., EST daily, to determine the total amount that will be funded by wire transfer to the (insurer)’s designated bank on the same day. The transmission must include a breakdown between state and local amounts,” according to the contract.
The contract also has a provision about any overpayments or refunds:
“(Insurer) must disclose, fully account for, and remit, to the Commission any and all funds received by it as the result of a recovery of an overpayment or incorrect payment, prescription drug rebates and other pharmaceutical revenues, or subrogation of a claim or lien. Any discounted or negotiated rates or payment arrangements, any price adjustment, or refunds, and any retroactive or supplemental payments or credits negotiated with regard to covered services received by SHBP members must be remitted to the Commission. (Administrative) fees must take into consideration this provision,” according to the contract.
And, if the state believes there is a problem with the payments, it can audit at any time.
“(Insurers) must cooperate in the administration of routine audits performed by the Commission or its designee, on various aspects of the administration of the Plan, including but not limited to claims processing, medical management and enrollment data. The various audits are designed to ensure (1) contract compliance, (2) that the interface system is working properly, (3) proper payment of claims where the individual should have coverage or (4) proper rejection of claims where the individual’s coverage has terminated, and (5) correct allocation of claims according to SHBP experience groups and (6) efficient and effective medical management,” the contract said.
“An audit may be conducted if the Commission has a reasonable and good faith belief that a situation exists that will result in harm to the Plan. Audits must encompass records held by any subcontractor or related organization and held by any entity that is a member of the contractor group of companies.”
AVYM co-founders Mark Flores and Vincent Flores told ROI-NJ that the organization specializes in helping providers navigate claims and has seen a number of questionable practices since its inception in 1999.
The white paper looked at claims from a Sparta school employee’s surgery and suggested that the provider was only paid 50 percent of the amount originally claimed, and the remainder was pocketed by the insurer.
“Based on court cases (cited in the paper), it seems apparent TPAs can and do hide ‘undisclosed’ administrative compensation fees within medical claims payments. These undisclosed fees, which can account for 30 to 60 percent of a plan sponsor’s health claims expenditures, are usually siphoned into the TPA variance account through ‘retention reallocations’ and ‘cross plan overpayment’ offsets, among other techniques. Based on industry estimates and national claims processing standards, we believe the New Jersey State Health Benefits Plan and the School Employees’ Health Benefits Plan can realize a $1 billion (per) year reduction in expenditures by rigorous monitoring of TPA practices,” the AVYM report said.
Mark Flores said that the actions of the TPA occur in a black box and are not visible to the state.
“The big issue is that there’s no way to confirm whether or not the doctor is receiving the amount the (state) is paying the TPA for the claim,” he said.
And that could save the state at least 30 percent of its current medical claims expenditures.
Sarlo said one of the reasons he is pursuing the matter is the insurers’ response to transparency legislation.
“When I had in my bill, when I had transparency disclosure to follow the money on these claims, which include TPAs out to providers, they opposed that bill,” Sarlo said. “Aetna, Horizon and all the health insurers opposed that bill.”
Sarlo hopes the answers from Muoio will result in, at the very least, changing language for the new contract with the insurers.
“Greater transparency on the operations of these third-party administrators will help identify cost savings that should be passed on to the state,” Sarlo said in a statement accompanying the letter. “There needs to be an accounting of the savings that insurance companies retain as fees and commissions.
“We must ensure that the majority of these savings flow to the state as they should. Every year, doctors and other health care providers complain of decreasing reimbursements. At the same time, health care consumers complain of rising premiums and increasing costs. The obvious question that needs to be asked is: Where is all the money going?”
Sarlo told ROI-NJ he realizes the answer won’t be a cure-all for the state, but it’s one worth getting.
“I’m not saying this is going to save the budget at the end of the day,” he said. “But it’s worth a look.
“This is serious dollars. The state of New Jersey is paying $37,000 per employee. If we can find savings in those health care plans, we must do it.”