Public sentiment has already moved HMOs to soften their image. As Bilheimer noted, these plans have become "kinder and gentler."
But it may be too little, too late, given continued interest on Capitol Hill in regulating managed care practices. Lawmakers Thursday held their second negotiating session to try to resolve the differences in the House and Senate's health care reform bills that passed last year.
"Common sense thinks that the [managed care] industry should have agreed to [some reforms] a long time ago," Rother tells WebMD. "They've made themselves the target unnecessarily."
The congressional negotiators announced agreements on three relatively minor provisions. First, they agreed that parents may designate a pediatrician -- and in some cases, a non-physician pediatric provider --- as the primary care provider for their children. But that right only applies if the plan allows enrollees to designate their own primary physicians.
The House and Senate also agreed that patients may go to the nearest emergency room to stabilize their condition without prior authorization and without financial penalty. The lawmakers reached a deal that made it harder to exclude providers from their network.
But huge areas of disagreement remain in the congressional talks, including over how many Americans should benefit from the legislation, the proper appeals processes for patients with grievances, and the possible right to sue one's health plan.