Nearly two years after passage of price transparency law, only a small number of the nation’s hospitals are fully compliant, according to two separate reports
Price transparency is a major trend in the US healthcare system. Yet, hospitals, physicians, clinical laboratories, and other providers have been reticent to design their websites so it is easy for patients to find prices in advance of clinical care. Now comes news that federal officials are ready to issue fines to hospitals that fail to comply with regulations mandating price transparency for patients.
Many of the largest healthcare networks claim that complying with federal hospital price transparency regulation is costly, time consuming, and provides no return on investment. Nevertheless, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is quite serious about enforcing price transparency laws, and to that end the agency has, for the first time, levied fines against two hospitals in Georgia that have not complied with the regulations.
As many pathologists and medical laboratory managers know, on January 1, 2021, a federal rule on price transparency for medical facilities went into effect. The rule requires hospitals—as well as clinical laboratories and other healthcare providers—to post a comprehensive list of their services and the pricing for those services on their websites, and to provide access to a patient-friendly tool to help consumers shop for 300 common services.
The CMS recently issued its first penalties to two hospitals located in Georgia for violating the law by not updating their websites or replying to the agency’s warning letters. The letters CMS sent to the two hospitals alleged there were several violations of the transparency rules, including the failure to post a listing of their charges on their websites and requested corrective action plans by the hospitals.
In November 2021, Northside Hospital Atlanta informed regulators that consumers should call or email the facility to obtain price estimates for services. Later in January 2022, during a “technical assistance call,” a hospital representative told CMS “the previous violations had not been corrected and, in fact, the hospital system had intentionally removed all previously posted pricing files,” according to a Notice of Imposition of a Civil Monetary Penalty letter CMS sent to Robert Quattrocchi, President and Chief Executive Officer, Northside Hospital Atlanta.
Under the rules of the Hospital Price Transparency law, each hospital operating in the US is required to provide clear, accessible pricing information online about the items and services they provide in two ways:
- As a comprehensive machine-readable file listing all items and services.
- In a display of shoppable services in a consumer-friendly format.
CMS fined Northside Hospital Atlanta $883,180 and Northside Cherokee Hospital $214,320 for noncompliance with the law. The penalties are calculated based on the size of the hospital and the length of time of the noncompliance—up to $300 per day. In addition, the facilities could endure further monetary penalties if they continue to fail to comply. The organizations will have 30 days to appeal the charges or have 60 days to remit payment for the fines.
Both hospitals are owned by Northside, a Georgia health system with five acute care hospitals, more than 250 outpatient facilities, over 4,100 providers, and 25,500 employees, according to the provider’s website.
Compliance with Price Transparency Laws Low
Analysis of the healthcare industry shows that many facilities are not in compliance with the transparency rules. In April, a report released by health IT firm KLAS Research, found that hospitals believe the transparency rule is too costly to implement and confusing to consumers, which helps explain the low compliance issues. KLAS surveyed 66 hospital revenue cycle leaders for their report.
“There are concerns about cost, data accuracy, and patient options of pricing tools; some respondents worry about patients’ ability to understand the displayed pricing data, and today, most patients are unaware online pricing information exists,” the report states. In addition, the report notes that “many organizations are not investing beyond the bare minimum requirements, and they don’t plan to do more until there is further clarity around the regulations and the expectations going forward.”
The KLAS report also noted that organizations are struggling to find the resources to comply with the price transparency rule and consider it a financial burden to continually add new employees and technology to become and remain in compliance. Many organizations see no merit in investing in a regulation that provides no return on that investment.
Another compliance report released in February by Patient Rights Advocate maintained that only 14.3% of the 1,000 hospitals they reviewed were in full compliance with the Hospital Price Transparency regulation. About 37.9% of the hospitals posted a sufficient detailing of service rates, but over half of those hospitals were noncompliant in other criteria of the rule, such as rates by insurer and insurance plans.
“We are now entering the second year since the Hospital Price Transparency rule became law, and compliance remains at very low levels,” according to the report. “The largest hospital systems are effectively ignoring the law, with no consequences.”
The Patient Rights Advocate analysis also found that a mere 0.5% of hospitals owned by the three largest hospital systems in the country—HCA Healthcare, CommonSpirit Health, and Ascension—were in full compliance of the law.
Notably, only two of the 361 hospitals owned by these three hospital systems were fully compliant. In addition, none of the 188 hospitals owned by HCA Healthcare, the largest for-profit hospital system in the country, were in compliance.
Hospitals Fail to Provide Consumers with Critical Information
The Patient Rights Advocate report found that the most significant reason for noncompliance was failure to post all payer-specific and plan-specific negotiated rates on their websites. They estimated that 85.7% of the 1,000 hospitals reviewed did not post a complete machine-readable file of standard charges, as required by the law.
“The lack of compliance by hospitals is about more than simply the failure to follow the legal requirements,” the report states. “It is also about the failure of hospitals to provide critically needed information to consumers so they can make better health decisions. Empowered with comparative price and quality information in advance of care, consumers, including employers and unions, can improve health outcomes while lowering costs by taking advantage of the benefits of competitive market efficiencies.”
With the CMS starting to issue fines for noncompliance, it is probable that more healthcare organizations will focus on adhering to the Hospital Price Transparency law. Since the transparency rules also apply to clinical laboratories, lab managers should be aware of the regulations and any further enforcement actions taken by the CMS.