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New Study Shows Hospitals Still Gouge Those Who are Uninsured

It's no surprise that pricing (legally required to be transparent) still isn't and hospitals still take advantage.
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Prices Hospitals Charge Cash Payers

As of January 1, hospitals were required to publish rates for 300 common services in a format easily readable by computers for analysis. 

Last June, the American Hospital Association Sued to Keep Prices Secret. They Lost.

A federal judge has upheld a Trump administration policy that requires hospitals and health insurers to publish their negotiated prices for health services, numbers that are typically kept secret.

A simple blood test, for example, can cost $11 or $1,000. Coronavirus tests show a similar variation, with prices from $27 to $2,315.

In his decision, Judge Nichols found that the hospitals were “attacking transparency measures generally” in a bid to limit patients’ insight into medical prices.

Judge Nichols, who was appointed to the D.C. District Court last year [By Trump], also rejected the hospitals’ other arguments: that the new rules would create overwhelming administrative burdens and that increased transparency might actually drive up prices.

Thank Trump

So yes, whatever you think of Trump, you can thank him in more ways than one for medical price disclosures, assuming you can indeed find the disclosures.

Cost of noncompliance is a mere $300 a day, and so many hospitals just don't care.

Appeals Court Upheld the Ruling

On December 29, 2020 a panel for the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia unanimously upheld the district court’s ruling.

  • The court rejected AHA’s argument that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) authorized only the release of chargemaster rates.
  • The court rejected AHA’s argument that publicizing the two required lists was not allowed by statute. Instead, it agreed with the federal government’s argument that the list of 300 shoppable services is a subset of the first list.
  • Also rejected were arguments that hospitals would not know how to comply in instances when rates were based on numerous variables, such as bundled rates.
  • The court also rejected HFMA’s estimates that the 150-hour commitment required to implement compliance processes in the first year will continue on into future years, citing “the wide range of estimates offered by [other] commenters.”
  • The court rejected AHA’s concerns that the rule overly relies on third-party vendors to use the publicized rates to create tools that would benefit consumers.
  • Also falling flat was AHA’s warning that the disclosures will lead to higher prices, since the new requirement relies on state-led initiatives that either failed to disclose precisely the same information or collected the information from different sources.

The AHA already has appealed to the incoming Biden administration to halt the rule over concerns that the price transparency requirement will not help patients and instead will confuse them, will accelerate anticompetitive behavior among commercial health plans and will impose significant costs on providers at a time when scarce resources are needed to fight COVID-19.

The American Hospital Association is a disgusting bunch. 

Hospitals Hide Pricing Data From Search Results

On March 22, The Wall Street Journal reported Hospitals Hide Pricing Data From Search Results.

Webpages for hundreds of hospitals require users to click through to find prices, undermining federal transparency rule, Journal analysis shows.

“It’s technically there, but good luck finding it,” said Chirag Shah, an associate professor at the University of Washington who studies human interactions with computers. “It’s one thing not to optimize your site for searchability, it’s another thing to tag it so it can’t be searched. It’s a clear indication of intentionality.”

Among websites where the Journal found the blocking code were those for some of the biggest U.S. healthcare systems and some of the largest hospitals in cities including New York and Philadelphia. They include hospitals owned by HCA Healthcare Inc., Universal Health Services Inc.,  the University of Pennsylvania Health System and NYU Langone Health. Some regional systems also had such code on their websites, including Michigan’s Beaumont Health and Novant Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Penn Medicine, NYU Langone and Novant Health said that they used blocking code to direct patients first to information they considered more useful than raw pricing data for which they also included links. 

A Disgusting Bunch

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We're blocking prices for the benefit of the customer. Yeah right. 

Did I say, American Hospital Association is a disgusting bunch? I believe I did.  

So, where are we today?

What the Data Shows

At least 44% of the country’s roughly 4,900 short-term, rural and children’s hospitals hadn’t published data that complied with the January rule as of June 18, according to Turquoise Health Co.

 Unsurprisingly, the WSJ reports News Data Shows Hospitals Often Charge Uninsured People the Highest Prices (assuming you can find prices at all).

Journal Findings

  • Hospitals routinely bill uninsured patients at their highest rates. About 21%, or 319, of the hospitals did so for the majority of the services included in the analysis. At 171 of those hospitals, the cash rate was higher than all of the rates billed to insurers, or tied for the highest rate, for every service in the analysis. That was true at some hospitals owned by major systems including Sanford Health and Yale New Haven Health System.
  • On average, across the 1,166 hospitals that included rates for Medicare Advantage plans in their disclosures, the fees for uninsured patients were 3.6 times the average rates paid by the Medicare Advantage plans. Medicare rates are typically set by the government to at least cover hospital costs and are considered a baseline for comparing prices. 
  • Some dominant local and regional nonprofits, including Mass General Brigham, based in Boston, and Avera, based in Sioux Falls, S.D., billed the uninsured at their general hospitals some of their highest prices while also setting some of the most restrictive financial-aid policies for free care nationwide, according to tax filings, Turquoise data and patients’ medical bills.
  • Cash prices, which haven’t been available publicly to help patients choose where to seek medical care, often vary widely even among hospitals in the same county. In the 270 counties where at least two hospitals have disclosed their cash prices, the average spread between the lowest and highest rates for a complex emergency-room visit is $1,852.
  • In Shelby County, Tenn., home to Memphis, the spread for that type of ER visit is $2,054. It would cost an uninsured patient $884 at any of the three Baptist Memorial Health Care hospitals; $1,480 at Regional Medical Center; $2,653 at Saint Francis Hospital-Memphis; and $2,938 at Saint Francis Hospital-Bartlett.

Frequently, even if a low price is available, it's only available if you request it. 

For customers footing their own bill, the moral of the story is to both ask for a rate in advance and shop around.

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