Online price lists a first step toward health care reform

— The Wilson Times


Past and prospective hospital patients will have an extra reason to celebrate when the clock strikes midnight and the date changes from Dec. 31 to Jan. 1.

A Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services rule enacted in April requires every American hospital to publish its standard price list online in 2019. While that won’t make scheduling a surgery as simple as ordering a pizza, it’s an important first step in bringing price transparency to the notoriously opaque and byzantine health care bureaucracy.

The figures you’ll see aren’t likely to correlate with those on your hospital bill even if you’re uninsured and paying out of pocket. That’s because hospital price schedules, called chargemasters, generally contain the kind of inflated base costs that no one really pays. It’s akin to the manufacturer’s sticker price for a new car before rebates, discounts and dealer incentives are added.

“The list prices are so high that the vast majority of hospitals don’t even try to collect list prices from uninsured patients,” Benedic Ippolito of the American Enterprise Institute told the Journal-News of Middletown, Ohio.

Those prices sometimes rear their ugly heads, however, when an insured patient visits an out-of-network hospital or clinic. Those health care providers may charge you the difference between what your insurance company pays and its full list price, a practice known as balance billing.

Federal regulations already require hospitals to make prices available, the Associated Press notes, but the April rule ensures that the information will be placed online “in machine-readable format that can be easily processed by computers.”

We wouldn’t be surprised if that leads to a cottage industry of comparison websites that break down the data and allow patients to see how much a common procedure could cost from providers within a 50-mile, 100-mile or 300-mile radius of their home address. Without the prices that hospitals charge insurers, that information may have little real-world value. But it could still nudge health care closer to the world of free-market price competition.

Perhaps insurance companies can use the public data as leverage to reduce costs for their in-network patients. Lower costs, in theory, would then lead to lower premiums.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar cites price transparency and cost competition as key planks in his platform to make health care more affordable.

“America’s health care system has to change, and President Trump’s administration recognizes that,” Azar said in a prepared statement. “This payment proposal takes important steps toward a Medicare system that puts patients in charge of their care and allows them to receive the quality and price information needed to drive competition and increase value.”

Azar’s vowed to “disrupt our existing system” of health care, and every patient stuck with a barrage of bills for basic procedures knows it needs some serious disruption. We hope he is successful.

Online price lists won’t fix health care overnight, but as the calendars change to 2019, patients will have more information available at their fingertips than they did the year before. That merits a champagne toast.


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