Hospital price transparency is a distraction from policies that could reduce costs without burdening patients, say Jamie Daw and Adam Sacarny.
The prices that hospitals charge privately insured patients in the US have long been shrouded in secrecy. These prices—which are negotiated between hospitals and private insurers—vary widely: the price for the same blood test could vary 39-fold within Tampa, Florida and the cost of a cesarean delivery varies by up to $24 000 in San Francisco, California.
A recent federal court decision stands to shine a light on opaque hospital pricing in the US. In a lawsuit brought forward by the American Hospital Association, a federal judge upheld a regulation issued by the Trump administration that will soon require hospitals to post a wealth of information on payment rates online.
This policy seems intuitive: in other sectors of the economy, consumers usually know the price of a service or product before they purchase it. By comparing prices, consumers can shop around and save money. In turn, sellers anticipate that behavior and are incentivized to keep prices low. Who wouldn’t want a virtuous circle like that in healthcare?
The Trump administration argues that hospital price transparency will encourage value in healthcare by helping patients and employers find lower prices, while pressuring hospitals to cut them further. However, the potential effects—and who stands to benefit—are not so straightforward.
Firstly, giving consumers information on prices doesn’t necessarily mean that they will respond by seeking lower cost services. Studies have consistently found that patients tend not to use price transparency tools, and their effects on healthcare spending are small or nonexistent. Why? Shopping for healthcare services is often complicated or impossible.
Many of the most expensive services are for emergencies where there is little scope for patients to shop.
Even when a patient has time to compare prices for non-urgent procedures or tests, the complexity of healthcare payment systems and insurance products makes it next to impossible for a patient to preemptively calculate what they would personally pay for an encounter. Establishing that amount requires patients to know the cost-sharing parameters of their insurance plan, the set of services they will use during the encounter, and how aggressively the hospital will bill for those services.
Insurance also obscures patients’ incentives to shop by insulating them from healthcare prices.
While patients can be given strong incentives to shop—and an increasing number of American workers are enrolled in high deductible health plans with this aim—these incentives are created by hoisting financial risk on patients. This financially burdens American families and can result in patients forgoing appropriate care.
Beyond the challenges posed by patient shopping, the empirical evidence supporting price transparency is weak.
It could even backfire. Economists have pointed out that in sectors with low competition, price transparency can facilitate collusion and lead to higher prices. This fear was borne out in Denmark when authorities began publishing the prices of ready-mixed cement. Prices proceeded to converge and rise, and the authorities eventually abandoned the idea. The most hopeful evidence in the US healthcare system comes from New Hampshire, where prices for medical imaging fell by 3% after the state established a price transparency website. But even effects of this magnitude, while beneficial, would only make a tiny dent in lowering US healthcare costs.
Price transparency efforts reflect a broad trend for American policy makers to turn to consumer-driven strategies to reduce healthcare costs.
These strategies are built on the assumption that patients ought to be responsible for navigating their way to high quality, low cost healthcare. However, the challenges faced by patients in assessing the complex cost-quality tradeoffs in healthcare limit the potential for price transparency to have the impact that the administration advertises.
Perhaps more troubling is that these efforts could distract policy makers from addressing the main drivers of US healthcare prices, such as rapid and ongoing consolidation. Concentrated hospital markets are becoming the norm in the US and are strongly associated with higher prices. Antitrust actions, such as preventing hospital mergers, could reduce and reverse consolidation, likely leading to lower prices.
Another option for policy makers is to assume a greater regulatory role over healthcare prices, including introducing price caps and an all-payer rate setting. A Supreme Court decision made it much more difficult for state governments to collect the data that would undergird these efforts. As a result, the information released under the transparency rule may end up being more useful for states considering new price regulations than for patients shopping for healthcare services.
If we want to reduce prices without burdening patients with financial risk, then policy makers need to address the emerging causes of rising healthcare costs directly. Efforts to control costs are most likely to succeed when policy makers tackle the structural drivers behind the most expensive health system in the world.