Hospitals are now required to disclose the prices they secretly negotiate with insurers.
But many are dragging their feet on the new regulations, which were passed under President Donald Trump and could very well stay in place under President Biden.
The rules went into place Jan. 1, but hospital compliance is spotty.
“Hospitals are playing a hide-and-seek game,” said Ge Bai, an expert on health-care pricing at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Even with this regulation, most of them are not being fully transparent.”
Hospitals lost a bruising court battle last year to stop the rules, which require them to publish a list of prices for goods and services. The point is to bring more transparency to prices for medical goods and services — information that has long been inaccessible to consumers. The new rules were a centerpiece of Trump’s promise to inject more price transparency in the health-care system and curb surprise billing.
But Nisha Kurani, a policy analyst at the Kaiser Family Foundation who is tracking hospital responses to the new rule, said she’s seen the full gamut.
MedStar in Washington posted its prices in an Excel sheet on its website, but other hospitals only posted price estimates, uploaded files in difficult to use formats, or promised to release information only after someone inputs their insurance, Kurani said.
A Gothamist investigation found that only one of five major New York hospitals posted a list of their negotiated services to their website, and even then, not for all procedures. The fine for not complying with the new rules — $300 a day — is a drop in the bucket for many hospitals.
The rules probably aren’t going away anytime soon.
The Biden administration hasn’t taken any public position on the rules — and right now, officials are focused on reversing dozens of other Trump administration regulations they believe are damaging to health insurance and costs in the United States.
Revising the hospital transparency rules — if that’s even something the new administration wants to do — would likely be far down on the priority list, despite heavy lobbying by the hospital industry to suspend enforcement of the new rule.
Plus, price transparency is broadly popular among the public and was one of the planks of a joint health policy plan developed by a task force Biden formed with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) after the 2020 primary elections.
The American Hospital Association says staff who would help with compliance are stretched thin.
Molly Smith, the association’s group vice president for public policy, said many of the staff members who would normally be tasked with compiling and formatting the price data are the same people being asked to help set up patient registries and vaccine tracking systems in response to the pandemic.
“We’ve got a lot of hospitals that are at or beyond capacity,” Smith said.
A lawyer for the hospital association said that it is considering petitioning its legal case to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the lobbying group has been pushing the Biden administration to suspend enforcement of the new rule.
Consumer advocates like the transparency rules designed to protect patients and drive down health-care costs.
“In the past there was absolutely no power for the consumer. It was like highway robbery being committed every day by the health-care system,” said Cynthia Fisher, head of the nonprofit Patient Rights Advocate, which pushes for price transparency.
But now, Fisher says, “it’s the American consumer who is going to drive down the cost of care.”
But the effect might be modest.
Experts in health-care economics hotly debate whether the price transparency rules will, in fact, drive down costs. Even those who support the changes say the effect might be incremental.
“I don’t think it’s going to be an earthquake in terms of pricing, but it’s a first step in the right direction,” said Bai.
There are several reasons the new price transparency rule may not have a massive effect on hospital prices. Perhaps the biggest, and one often cited by the hospital lobby, is that most Americans are not going to pay the negotiated price for a procedure. Instead, they are likely to pay co-pays or coinsurance that amount to a fraction of this price.
This isn’t always true, of course. Those with high-deductible plans may pay the negotiated rate, and for those without insurance paying out of pocket, it can be helpful to get a peek behind the sticker price. But even for these patients, it may be challenging to extract useful information from unwieldy spreadsheets full of obscure billing codes.
Bai said that she is hopeful that third parties may make some of the pricing information easier for consumers to use. And some self-insured employers may start identifying cheaper providers and incentivizing patients to use them. The rules also require hospitals to provide cost-sharing estimates for commonly used procedures in an easily navigable format.
Still, price competition works only if there are players to compete.
The market for health care has become increasingly consolidated as hospitals merge and buy up physician practices. If a hospital is the only health-care provider in town, then there’s not a whole lot patients can do about high prices, even if they think they’re unfair.
“I don’t think transparency will fundamentally change the power balance between the payer and the hospital in many markets,” Bai said.