new investigation by the nonprofit news organization ProPublica., according to a
The Affordable Care Act requires that health plans give providers the option of being paid electronically to improve efficiency and save money. In 2017, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services issued guidance that prohibited insurers and their payment processing vendors from “engaging in unfair business practices that do not support an efficient healthcare system,” according to a recent Medical Group Management Association position paper.
But that guidance, which appeared to forbid requiring fees to receive payments online, disappeared from the CMS site 6 months later.
According to ProPublica’s reporting, the change was the result of a quiet insurance industry lobbying campaign led by Matthew Albright, a former CMS employee who left government service to work for Zelis, a payment processing company co-owned by private equity giant Bain Capital.
The details of the lobbying effort were discovered by Alex Shteynshlyuger, a New York urologist, who through public records requests received the email correspondence between Mr. Albright and CMS and shared that material with ProPublica.
Mr. Albright had been able to influence CMS policy to protect what ProPublica called a “crucial revenue stream” for payment processors. The fee notice was removed just 3 days after Mr. Albright requested the change, ProPublica found.
When CMS resisted further changes, including eliminating guidance forbidding insurers and payment processors from charging excess fees for online payments, Mr. Albright brought in a law firm. The threat of a lawsuit by deep-pocketed Zelis was enough to bring CMS in line, ProPublica reported. Today, these fees can cost larger medical practices more than $1 million a year, according to the MGMA report.
“It took less than a decade for a new industry of middlemen, owned by private equity funds and giant conglomerates like UnitedHealth Group, to cash in,” writes Cezary Podkul, the author of the ProPublica report.
It might seem that avoiding the fees would be as simple as requesting to be paid by check. However, a 2021 poll by the MGMA found that 57% of doctors were being charged these fees when they hadn’t agreed to them. According to the ProPublica report, physicians who have requested to be paid by check often find themselves being bounced back to electronic fund transfer (EFT) payments, where they are again charged fees.
In October 2021, more than 90 physician organizations, including the American Medical Association and the MGMA, signed a letter calling on the Biden administration to reinstate guidance to protect physicians’ right to receive EFT payments without paying fees. The letter describes the practice as “outrageous” and analogous to “an employee being required to enroll in a program that would deduct a percentage of each paycheck to receive direct deposit payments from an employer.”
So far, however, the situation remains unchanged. The language on the CMS site has changed, though. In 2022, the guidelines were adjusted to clarify that EFT fees are allowed.
A version of this article first appeared on.