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Government & Law

Bipartisan Texas Bills Go After “Unconscionable” Freestanding ERs

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A bipartisan group of State Senators and Representatives, including local Democratic State Senator Nathan Johnson, filed legislation to allow the Texas Attorney General to address the unreasonable prices charged by freestanding emergency rooms.

Johnson joined author Senator Kirk Watson, D-Austin and Representative Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont in filing legislation similar to an existing law that allows the AG to stop price-gouging for goods and services during natural emergencies and disasters.

Freestanding ERs in the state represent 83 percent of all out-of-network emergency room services and end up costing Texans more than $3 billion a year in avoidable health care costs, which continues to drive up overall healthcare costs. Legislators take issue with the fact that these facilities look like urgent care centers but charge emergency care prices, and often attract patients with only minor issues. Freestanding ERs charge 20 times what urgent care centers and primary care doctors charge for common conditions like fever, sore throat, and cough, and often more than hospital ERs.

A study from AARP showed that 77 percent of freestanding ERs confuse patients by saying they “take” or “accept”  insurance even though they are out of network for all the major plans, that nearly 30 percent of them claimed they were in-network for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas when there weren’t, and that 30 percent of their websites don’t follow state network transparency laws.

The bill, known as SB 866 and HB 1941 in the senate and house respectively, would protect Texans from exorbitant charges in an emergency, make prices “unconscionable” if they are more than 200 percent over the average hospital charge for the same service, and allow the state to take action to stop freestanding ERs via restraining order against the facility if unconscionable prices. The penalty for overcharging the elderly could include be to $250,000.

A second bill from Republican Representative Tom Oliverson from Cypress would prohibit freestanding emergency rooms from using helath plan logos, prohibit the words “take” and “accept” for patient’s insurance unless they are in-network, and would require facility and observation fees to the patient before anything is done.

“Time and again, Texans get confused by misleading advertising and frustrated by exorbitant prices when they seek care from independent freestanding ERs. These facilities have demonstrated a pattern of withholding important information from patients regarding their network status or the prices they will charge for their services,” said Dudensing via release. “Rep. Oliverson’s legislation would ensure Texans have the information they need to better care for themselves and their families without breaking their bank accounts.”

“Many freestanding ERs in Texas mislead consumers, and Texas patients are paying the price with some of the most expensive ER costs in the nation,” said TAHP CEO Jamie Dudensing via release. “TAHP supports protecting Texans from these outrageous prices and holding these bad actors accountable for price-gouging and deceptive advertising.”