In a letter, Congress urged the HHS Secretary to conduct “vigorous oversight and enforces full compliance with the final rule”
Analysis of more than 3,100 hospital websites by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) has found “hundreds” containing embedded code that prevents search engines from displaying the hospitals’ prices. This is contrary to the Hospital Price Transparency Final Rule (84 FR 65524), passed in November 2019, which requires hospitals to “establish, update, and make public a list of their standard charges for the items and services that they provide,” including clinical laboratory test prices.
“Hundreds of hospitals embed code in their websites that prevented Alphabet Inc.’s Google and other search engines from displaying pages with the price lists,” the WSJ reported. “Among websites where [the WSJ] found the blocking code were those for some of the biggest US healthcare systems and some of the largest hospitals in cities including New York and Philadelphia.”
Additionally, the WSJ found hospitals were finding ways to “hide” the price lists they did display deep within their websites. The prices can be found, but the effort involves “clicking through multiple layers of pages,” on the providers’ websites, the WSJ added.
Lawmakers Put Pressure on CMS
The WSJ report drew the attention of federal lawmakers who weighed in on the current state of hospital price transparency and on the WSJ’s findings in a letter to Xavier Becerra, Secretary of the federal Department Health and Human Services (HHS).
In their letter, members of the Congressional Committee on Energy and Commerce called for HHS “to revisit its enforcement tools, including the amount of civil penalty, and to conduct regular audits of hospitals for compliance.”
Committee members wrote, “The Hospital Price Transparency Final Rule requires hospitals to make public a machine-readable file containing a list of all standard charges for all items and services and to display charges for the hospital’s 300 most ‘shoppable’ services in a consumer-friendly format. We are concerned about troubling reports of some hospitals either acting slowly to comply with the requirements of the final rule or not taking any action to date to comply.”
The letter, which was signed by the committee’s Chairman Frank Pallone (D, New Jersey) and Committee Ranking Member Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R, Washington State), cited the WSJ investigation as well as other analyses of price transparency at US hospitals.
Additional Studies Show Major Hospitals “Non-Compliant”
One such study cited by the Congressional committee in its letter to HHS was conducted by Health Affairs, which looked into transparency compliance at 100 hospitals. In a blog post, titled, “Low Compliance from Big Hospitals on CMS’s Hospital Price Transparency Rule,” the study authors wrote “our findings were not encouraging: Of the 100 hospitals in our sample, 65 were unambiguously noncompliant.
“Of these 65,” they added:
- “12/65 (18%) did not post any files or provided links to searchable databases that were not downloadable.
- “53/65 (82%) either did not include the payer-specific negotiated rates with the name of payer and plan clearly associated with the charges (n = 46) or were in some other way noncompliant (n = 7).
“We are troubled by the finding that 65 of the nation’s 100 largest hospitals are clearly noncompliant with this regulation. These hospitals are industry leaders and may be setting the industrywide standard for (non)compliance; moreover, our assessment strategy was purposefully conservative, and our estimate of 65% noncompliance is almost certainly an underestimate,” Health Affairs concluded.
A previous similar investigation by The Washington Post called compliance by hospitals with the pricing disclosure rules “spotty.”
In “The Health 202: Hospitals Drag Feet on New Regulations to Disclose Costs of Medical Services,” Ge Bai, PhD, Associate Professor of Practice, Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, an expert on healthcare pricing, wrote, “Hospitals are playing a hide-and-seek-game. Even with this regulation, most of them are not being fully transparent.”
Are Hospitals Confused by the Final Rule?
So, why is complying with the federal price transparency rule so challenging for the nation’s largest hospitals? In its reporting on the Wall Street Journal analysis, Gizmodo wrote, “we’ve seen healthcare providers struggle to implement the new law due, in part, to how damn ambiguous it is. Past reports have pointed out that the vague requirements hoisted onto hospitals as part of these new rules often result in these pricing lists being difficult—if not downright—impossible to find, even if the lists are technically ‘machine-readable’ and ‘on the internet.’”
“Meanwhile,” Gizmodo continued, “as [the WSJ] points out, the order doesn’t specify exactly how much detail these hospitals are even supposed to offer on their pricing sheets—meaning that it’s up to the hospitals whether they want to include rates pertaining to specific health insurance plans, or whether they want to simply include different plan’s rates in aggregate.”
And in their letter to HHS, the Congressional committee wrote, “… some hospitals are providing consumers a price estimator tool instead of providing the full list of charges and payer-negotiated rates in one file, and some are making consumers fill out lengthy forms for estimates. Some hospitals also are providing the data in a non-useable format or failing to provide the codes for items and services.”
Clinical Laboratories Must Comply with Price Transparency Rules
Clearly, transparency in healthcare has a long way to go. Nevertheless, hospital medical laboratory leaders should expect reinforcing guidance from CMS on making price information on commonly used clinical laboratory tests fully accessible, understandable, and downloadable.
As Dark Daily noted in previous coverage, consumer demand for price transparency is only expected to increase. Clinical laboratories need to have a strategy and process for helping consumers and patients see test prices in advance of service.
—Donna Marie Pocius