Kansas gas utility won’t release invoices detailing winter prices, but some data is already available

Utilities purchased a combined $1 billion in excess natural gas charges during storm

by Allison Kite, Kansas Reflector

Kansas’ largest natural gas utility has resisted releasing records about what suppliers charged it during the historic cold snap in February that saw prices rise by more than 200 times. But according to a new filing, it has already disclosed much of that information.

In February, when temperatures in Kansas City plunged below 15 degrees for 10 days, natural gas prices went from a few dollars per MMBtu to $300 and $600 on some days. Kansas regulators are reviewing utilities’ plans to pass $1 billion in excess natural gas costs onto ratepayers, stretched over years.

Some large-scale customers have balked at the plans, pushing for more information about what suppliers charged Kansas utilities, particularly Kansas Gas Service, such high prices. But KGS has resisted those calls, saying its supplier invoices are confidential information.

But in a filing more than a month ago, KGS disclosed its suppliers and how much it paid each of them during the storm. A key piece of information missing is how much it paid per MMBtu, which would allow for comparison between companies.

“It seems to us to not be reasonable to say … 90% of what’s in the invoice is public, but 10% is not. That doesn’t seem to make logical sense to us,” said Jim Zakoura, an attorney representing the Natural Gas Transportation Customer Coalition, a group of large-scale business customers.

Zakoura filed with the Kansas Corporation Commission Wednesday asking commissioners to reconsider their earlier decision to deny his petition to release KGS’ invoices.

“It highlights the fact that in five days the market was so dysfunctional, in our opinion, that it caused a run-up of $1 billion,” Zakoura said.

Dawn Tripp, a spokeswoman for KGS, said documents the utility has filed with KCC are fully accessible to the agency’s staff, the attorney general’s office, Zakoura’s client and other consumer and business groups.

“Specific information about the pricing structure of the agreements we have with our natural gas suppliers and the prices paid are confidential,” she said.

Tripp said KGS has disputed charges with one supplier, Southwest Energy, reducing the cost of gas by $5.6 million. Another dispute, with MacQuarie Energy, is worth nearly $15 million and pending.

KGS is requesting to pass on more than $451 million in natural gas costs and carrying fees, the largest total of the Kansas utilities, and recover it from ratepayers over five, seven or 10 years. The change would increase the average customer’s bill anywhere from about $4 to $11 per month.

Kansas Reflector stories, www.kansasreflector.com, may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

See more at https://kansasreflector.com/2021/09/23/ks-gas-utility-wont-release-invoices-detailing-winter-storm-prices-but-some-data-is-already-available/.

Landing in the hospital with COVID-19 getting more expensive – here’s why

If you come down with a nasty case of COVID-19, here are the key things to worry about — moneywise — as you brace for the financial fallout.

by Celia Llopis-Jepsen, Kansas News Service, KCUR

For many Kansans, landing in the hospital with COVID-19 could easily cost thousands more dollars now than earlier in the pandemic.

It’s the latest, financial reason that experts encourage people to get vaccinated.

The vast majority of people hospitalized with the coronavirus today never got their shots against the disease. Getting the coronavirus vaccine gives you excellent odds of staying out of the hospital.

Early in the pandemic, most major insurance companies and many employers promised to waive cost-sharing (coinsurance, copays, deductibles) if you caught COVID-19 and needed medical care.

That’s changing.

“Insurers were voluntarily waiving deductibles and copays,” said Krutika Amin, a researcher at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “The environment has shifted with the safe and highly effective vaccines that are now widely available.”

In recent months, most health plans nationwide appear to have dropped those promises. Others plan to make the same move in coming weeks or months. That includes Kansas’ two largest insurers, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas and Blue KC.

If you come down with a nasty case of COVID-19 and end up in the hospital, the key money things you need to worry about are your health plan’s network, its cost-sharing rules and the risk of surprise bills.

Here’s the lowdown for Kansans who have health insurance, including cost-sharing rules for major insurers and health plans in Kansas.

(Side note: If you don’t have insurance, you’re in an even more precarious situation. A typical COVID-19 hospital stay can easily add up to $20,000 at prices negotiated by insurers. The uninsured risk getting charged even higher amounts.)

You may not be able to stay in-network.

Many Kansas hospitals are so busy right now that they can’t take on more patients. Some have even had to divert ambulances to other hospitals. And some are sending critically ill patients in air ambulances to beds in other states hours away from home.

All of this means that you can’t count on getting admitted to a hospital within your insurance network if you wind up needing intensive care.

Those air ambulances — with their eye-popping bills — could also easily fall outside your network. Last year we wrote about one COVID-19 patient’s $80,000 bill for an air ambulance from southeast Kansas to Kansas City.

So what happens if you end up in an out-of-network ICU? Experts say you may end up paying out-of-network rates for that care, or need to spend long hours filing paperwork and talking to your insurance carrier, making your case that the bills should count as in-network because you had no control over which hospital had a bed available.

“The patient — or, in many cases, it’s going to be a family member — needs to talk to the insurance company right away,” said Jack Hoadley, a health policy researcher and professor emeritus at Georgetown University. “Ask the insurance company: ‘Will you treat me as in-network?’”

If all else fails and your health plan falls under state regulations, you can also contact the Kansas Insurance Department through its online complaint form to see if the agency can help. But many employer plans do not fall under state rules.

Cost-sharing waivers for COVID-19 hospital bills are disappearing.

The Kaiser Family Foundation found most of the biggest insurers in each state have dropped their cost-sharing waivers.

Below are several major insurers active in Kansas, but keep in mind that the rules may be different if you get your coverage through your employer.

For Aetna, United HealthCare and Cigna, regular cost-sharing applies to COVID-19 hospital bills. Oscar returns to regular cost-sharing on Aug. 31. Medica does at the end of September.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas will keep waiving cost-sharing for COVID-19 treatment until the end of the public health emergency or the end of this year — whichever comes first. And Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City will waive cost-sharing for inpatient COVID-19 care at least until the end of the year.

If you have KanCare (Medicaid), your COVID-19 treatment will not involve cost-sharing. If you have Medicare, the amount you pay out of pocket will depend on the details of your coverage.

Watch out for surprise billing, even though Congress tried to rein it in.

Normally, you can get billed directly by an out-of-network hospital or even by out-of-network doctors at an in-network hospital. These “surprise bills” happen when the hospital or doctor feels your insurance didn’t pay enough, and so they demand you pay the balance.

Congress tied strings to its COVID-19 stimulus funds last year to stop that, but those rules don’t apply to all health care providers. Moreover, Hoadley says it’s unclear how well the law is being enforced or followed.

Next year, things will get better. Congress banned most kinds of surprise billing — ground ambulances not included — for health plans that start on Jan. 1, 2022 or later.

COVID-19 vaccines are free. Many coronavirus tests are, too.

The shots that can help you avoid those hospital bills in the first place are free, whether you have insurance or not.

You can also get a free COVID-19 test by picking a site through Kansas’ online list of participating locations. No insurance or ID needed.

If you opt instead to go somewhere else and use your insurance, cost-sharing rules will depend on whether the test was medically necessary.

Lea esta historia en español.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.
See more at https://www.kcur.org/news/2021-08-30/landing-in-the-hospital-with-covid-19-is-getting-more-expensive-heres-why.

State says rental, utility assistance to still be available after eviction moratorium expired

Topeka — Kansas Housing Resources Corporation (KHRC), the state’s housing finance agency, has provided $21,670,326.79 in emergency rental and utility assistance to 4,054 Kansas households experiencing financial hardship as a result of the COVID pandemic.

The funds, made available through the Kansas Emergency Rental Assistance (KERA) program, were allocated to the state through the federal Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) previously issued a temporary nationwide halt in residential evictions to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. That moratorium expired on July 31, 2021.

Kansans who may be facing eviction due to financial hardship incurred as a result of the COVID pandemic are encouraged to apply for KERA assistance, a spokesman stated.

The KERA funding has been a frequent topic at the Board of Public Utilities’ meetings, where community activists have begged the BPU not to shut off utilities for residents who are waiting for KERA to process their applications. These waits have taken months in some cases, according to the activists. The BPU put a hold on shutoffs of residents who have completed applications with KERA for assistance. At the last BPU meeting, BPU officials said the KERA program appeared to be moving a little faster now. The BPU’s moratorium on utility shutoffs for all customers will expire on Aug. 4, and could be reconsidered Wednesday at the board meeting.

“It’s so gratifying to know our team is getting these funds out the door and into our communities where they are so desperately needed,” said Ryan Vincent, KHRC’s executive director, in a news release. “We recognize that the need is vast, and we look forward to providing this crucial assistance to Kansas tenants, landlords, and service providers as the program continues.”

KERA funds helped Gary Evert and his wife Sheryl, a couple in their 70s, remain in their Olathe home.

“To anyone else out there who has applied for KERA I would say, ‘Don’t get discouraged. We’re all nervous, but when a customer service representative can calm you down and give you a sense of hope, it’s quite comforting,’” Evert said.

The KERA program previously served Kansans across the state except Wichita residents, who were served by the city’s rental assistance program. Recognizing the importance of serving tenants and landlords in the state’s most populous city, Wichita residents are now eligible to apply for the KERA program, though duplication of benefits is prohibited, according to KERA.

To be eligible to receive KERA assistance, tenants must rent their homes and must have experienced a documented financial hardship as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Examples of hardship may include qualifying for unemployment benefits, experiencing a reduction of household income, or incurring significant costs due to the pandemic. Additionally, the tenant’s household’s income may not exceed 80 percent of the area median income.

Nyrica Hall of Topeka was facing eviction when she applied for KERA assistance. Her request resulted in funding for rental and utility assistance, as well as a $600 lump sum payment to cover internet service, according to KERA.

“When the customer service manager called me back to say my application had been approved, I cried,” Hall said.

KERA applicants must provide the following documentation:
• Past-due utility bill or overdue rent or eviction notice from April 2020 to the present
• Signed lease identifying the residential unit and the rental payment amount
• 2020 Federal Income Tax Return as filed with the IRS (if tenant hasn’t filed 2020 federal income taxes, their W-2 wage statement and all IRS 1099 forms are acceptable)
• Proof of identification, including a current state-issued photo ID, court filing notice, or mail from a federal, state, county, or city agency displaying the rental unit address

Approved KERA applicants are eligible to receive a maximum of 12 months of rental and utility assistance, in addition to reasonable fees and security deposits. Qualified applicants are also eligible to receive a lump sum of $600 in credit to their internet providers to cover past-due or future internet costs, at a rate of $50 per month for 12 months. Tenants may apply for three months of prospective assistance at a time. Program guidelines require tenants and landlords to apply jointly, with payments made directly to the landlord or service provider.

The KERA program builds on KHRC’s success administering the Kansas Eviction Prevention Program, a statewide rental assistance initiative funded by the federal CARES Act in 2020, according to the news release. In the roughly 60 days that program was in statewide operation, KHRC processed 10,138 applications for more than $25.8 million in requested funding, ultimately serving 27,200 Kansans with $17,007,614 in rental assistance.

To learn more, to locate a community partner to assist with the application process, and to apply, visit kshousingcorp.org/emergency-rental-assistance.