UnitedHealthcare Announces New Pilot Program to Increase Access to Physical Therapist Services as Result of Collaboration With APTA

This week, UnitedHealthcare (UHC) announced a pilot program in 5 states that will waive the cost of copays and deductibles for 3 physical therapy sessions for patients with low back pain (LBP) living in Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and New York. The pilot, which could affect as many as 1 million enrollees, goes into effect July 1, 2019. Other states will join the program in 2020 and 2021.

Specifically, the pilot will be available to UHC enrollees with new onset of LBP when receiving care from an outpatient in-network provider. This benefit change will not extend the enrollee’s physical therapy or chiropractic benefit maximum, and will apply only to services related to treating back pain. Enrollees must have physical therapy or chiropractic benefits remaining in order to use this benefit.

UHC will send emails about the benefit change on a quarterly basis to enrollees in the 5 states as they gain access to the benefit. Information also will be included on myuhc.com in the enrollee’s benefit information under Rehabilitation Services – Outpatient Therapy and Chiropractic (Manipulative) Treatment.

This pilot follows a multiyear collaboration between APTA, OptumLabs, and UHC that included publication of a study in the American Journal of Managed Care (subscription required). This study affirms that higher copays and payer restrictions on provider access may steer patients away from more conservative treatments for LBP, including physical therapy and chiropractic services. “Innovative modifications to insurance benefits,” authors write, “offer an opportunity for increased alignment with clinical practice guidelines and greater value.”

“This type of collaboration between a professional association and a private insurer is key to advancing the essential role of the physical therapy profession in improving outcomes for patients,” says Carmen Elliott, MS, APTA’s vice president of payment and practice management. “APTA continues to advocate for benefit design that is validated by data and meets the needs of patients, providers, and payers.”  For additional info 

Here’s my two cents... Having been in the industry for long enough to to remember the days when providers worried that insurers would not honor negotiated reimbursement rates, while insurers were concerned  that providers would find loopholes to augment the claims they submitted,  I am always happy when I read of  insurer-provider alliances. I do  think this program is a step in the right direction. On the other hand, while the APTA was talking with UHC, I wish they would have discussed how this insurance company has devalued the profession, and has adopted a LOW flat fee methodology for its in network providers that does not factor in the amount of time a therapist spends with a patient. UHC also has a history of audits using a “Recovery Services” team who aggressively try to classify therapy services either as medically unnecessary, or retroactively deny payment, and often demand  refunds because documentations submitted in audits ” did not support” payment or meet their standards. For certain practices, especially those OON, I have never seen a more aggressive attempt to classify services that were rendered in the good faith that they would be paid for as “overpayments” with refunds demanded or taken from future payments. These are not simply “first world problems’ of physical therapists; they strike at the core of why more and more practices opt out rather than in with carriers like United Health Care. Addressing these core issues could help all patients, not just those with LBP and really help increase a patient’s access to physical therapy.

 

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