Proposal comes as patient advocacy group reports poor compliance by hospitals with the federal price transparency regulation; AHA pushes back
Recent data compiled by Patient Rights Advocate, a non-profit group dedicated to nationwide healthcare transparency, appears to indicate that as many as two thirds of US hospitals continue to ignore hospital transparency rules established by Congress in 2021, according to an op-ed published in the Washington Examiner.
This may be why the Biden Administration has now proposed new amendments aimed at strengthening those requirements. According to KFF Health News (formerly Kaiser Health News), this new proposal “aims to further standardize the required data, increase its usefulness for consumers, and boost enforcement.”
However, “the goal of exact price tags in every situation is likely to remain elusive,” KFF Health News noted.
“Noncompliant hospitals are preventing patients and payers from shopping around for high-value care—and inflating healthcare costs in the process,” wrote Sally C. Pipes, President and CEO of Pacific Research Institute, in her Washington Examiner column.
Pathologists who were near the top of a Health Care Cost Institute (HCCI) list of medical specialties that most often billed out of network may be affected by CMS’ proposed new amendments to the transparency rule.
“The nonprofit group Patient Rights Advocate just published its fifth report exploring how hospitals are complying with federal price transparency requirements. About two-thirds are still flouting the rules. That’s unacceptable,” wrote Sally Pipes (above), President and CEO of Pacific Research Institute, in an op-ed she penned for the Washington Examiner. Federal law also requires clinical laboratories to post their prices for testing. (Photo copyright: The Heartland Institute.)
Hospitals, Clinical Laboratories Required to Post Chargemaster Prices
“Each patient is unique and uses a slightly different bundle of services,” Anderson added. “You might be in the operating room for 30 minutes, or it might be 45. You might need this lab test and not that one.”
The KFF Health News story noted that health insurers have been subject to even stricter regulations, “with more prescriptive details and tougher penalties for noncompliance,” since 2022. CMS’ latest proposed amendments would bring requirements for hospitals that are more in line with those that apply to payers, KFF reported.
As described in the Federal Register, the proposed rule aims to:
Require hospitals to include a new data element known as the “consumer-friendly expected allowed charges,” KFF Health News noted.
Require hospitals to “affirm the accuracy and completeness of their standard charge information displayed in the MRF.”
Require hospitals to place a link to pricing information in the footers of their web pages.
The rule also includes provisions for enhanced enforcement of pricing transparency requirements. Under one proposal, CMS would publicly identify hospitals that are not in compliance.
Jeffrey Leibach, MBA, a healthcare finance strategist and Partner with the consulting firm Guidehouse, told KFF Health News that the new rules will make it easier for third-party data firms to create online price comparison tools. “And, ultimately, consumers who want to shop will then find this data more easily,” he said.
The proposal comes on the heels of a July report from Patient Rights Advocate (PRA) indicating that only 36% of US hospitals were in full compliance with the current transparency requirements. The report was based on an analysis of 2,000 hospital websites. However, that was an improvement over earlier reports. In February, the group reported that 24.5% were fully compliant, compared with 16% in August 2022.
Most hospitals in the report posted negotiated prices, but in many cases, “their pricing data was missing or significantly incomplete,” PRA contended. A total of 69 hospitals “did not post a usable standard charges file,” the report stated.
PRA Uses Humor to Highlight Discrepancies, AHA Pushes Back
According to KFF Health News, PRA is running a satirical ad campaign in which retailers adopt the “hospital pricing method,” listing estimates on store shelves instead of actual prices.
“When they ask for a price, we give them an estimate,” says one retail manager in the video ad. “Then we bill them whatever we want.”
“People need price certainty,” PRA founder and Chairman Cynthia Fisher, MBA, told KFF Health News. “Estimates are a way of gaming the people who pay for healthcare.”
However, executives from the American Hospital Association (AHA) pushed back on the video ad and PRA’s claims about HPT compliance. AHA contends that hospitals were flagged as being noncompliant if they left spaces blank or used formulas, both of which are permitted under the current rules.
“Very few health services are so straightforward where you can expect no variation in the course of care, which could then result in a different cost than the original assessment,” AHA Group Vice President for public policy Molly Smith, MS, told KFF. “Organizations are doing the best they can to provide the closest estimate. If something changes in the course of your care, that estimate might adjust.”
As for the July PRA report, in a July 25 AHA press release, Smith stated, “Patient Rights Advocate has put out a report that blatantly misconstrues, ignores, and mischaracterizes hospitals’ compliance with federal price transparency regulations.”
CMS, she said, “has found that as of last year 70% of hospitals had complied with both federal requirements and over 80% had complied with at least one. Due to the ongoing efforts of the hospital field, these numbers are surely higher today. Third party analyses have agreed that hospitals have made tremendous progress.”
But then what is motivating the government’s new amendments to the price transparency rule? Regardless, clinical laboratories and pathology groups should continue to monitor progress of these new amendments to the federal hospital transparency rule.
By cross-referencing price disclosures by hospitals and insurance companies, which are required to publish the amounts they pay for hospital services under federal Transparency in Coverage regulations, PRA, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, discovered the healthcare providers’ noncompliance with federal transparency regulation.
“Prices revealed in newly released health insurance company data files show some major American hospitals are omitting prices from their required price disclosures in violation of the federal hospital price transparency rule,” according to the PRA report.
Hospitals conceal their prices because they don’t want people to know how much rates for the same procedure vary,” Sally C. Pipes (above), President and CEO of Pacific Research Institute, wrote in the Washington Examiner. “A lack of price transparency benefits hospitals but not patients or payers. The federal government should not let providers get away with flouting the law,” she added. Clinical laboratories are also required under federal law to publish their prices. (Photo copyright: The Heartland Institute.)
“PatientRightsAdvocate.org discovered several instances in which prices were omitted from the hospital files but appeared in the insurance company files,” noted the PRA report. “These discrepancies indicate that some large hospitals are not posting their complete price lists as required by the hospital price transparency rule.”
The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) says hospitals must post standard charges in a single machine-readable digital file, and display in a consumer-friendly way, “300 shoppable services with discounted cash prices, payer-specific negotiated charges, and de-identified minimum and maximum negotiated charges.”
But according to the PRA report and news release, the study team discovered that this was not always the case. Below are examples from the report of some of the discrepancies between prices on a hospital’s website and what payers’ websites showed as prices involving those same hospitals:
PRA’s report casts light on inconsistencies between what insurers and providers share with the public on prices.
“Today’s report confirms that hospitals are hiding prices from patients and [this] calls into question their public assertions that individual prices don’t exist for many of the services they provide,” said PRA Founder and Chairman Cynthia Fisher in the news release.
“The data made possible by the [federal] Transparency in Coverage (TiC) rule reveals prices negotiated with insurers that hospitals did not disclose in the machine-readable files required by law. Our report is just the tip of the iceberg of what the staggering amount of data in TiC disclosures will reveal,” she added.
Ascension, HCA Note Compliance with CMS Rule
For its part, Ascension, in a statement to Healthcare Dive, confirmed it is complying with the CMS rule and offers consumers tools to estimate costs.
“We’re proud to be a leader in price transparency,” Ascension said.
HCA told Healthcare Dive it has “implemented federal transparency requirements in January 2021 and provides a patient payment estimator in addition to posting third-party contracted rates.”
Advice for Clinical Laboratories Sharing Test Prices
Hospitals flouting the federal transparency rule is not new. Dark Daily has covered other similar incidences.
Clinical laboratory leaders who oversee multiple labs in healthcare systems may benefit from advice about CMS rule compliance shared in HealthLeaders.
Post a separate file for each provider.
Be “cognizant” of different sets of standard charges for multiple hospitals under one license.
“Today’s healthcare consumer wants to know prices in advance of service. That’s because many have high deductible health insurance plans of, say, $5,000 for an individual or $10,000 for a family as the annual deductible,” said Robert Michel, Editor-in-Chief of Dark Daily and its sister publication The Dark Report.
Clinical laboratory tests may not be the most expensive healthcare service. But they are critical for high-quality hospital care and outcomes. Increasingly, patients want to know in advance how much they will cost. This is true of patients of all generations, from Baby Boomers to Generations X, Y, and Z.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Clinical laboratories are advised to continue developing methods for making prices for procedures available to the general public
Even as an effective treatment for COVID-19 continues to elude federal healthcare agencies, Medicare officials are pressing ahead with efforts to bring about transparency in hospital healthcare pricing, including clinical laboratory procedures and prescription drugs costs.
In FY 2021 Proposed Rule CMS-1735-P, titled, “Medicare Program; Hospital Inpatient Prospective Payment Systems for Acute Care Hospitals and the Long-Term Care Hospital Prospective Payment System and Proposed Policy Changes and Fiscal Year 2021 Rates; Quality Reporting and Medicare and Medicaid Promoting Interoperability Programs Requirements for Eligible Hospitals and Critical Access Hospitals,” the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) proposes to “revise the Medicare hospital inpatient prospective payment systems (IPPS) for operating and capital-related costs of acute care hospitals to implement changes arising from our continuing experience with these systems for FY 2021 and to implement certain recent legislation.”
The proposed rule suggests a 1.6% increase (about $2 billion) in reimbursement for hospital inpatient services for 2021, but also eludes to the possibility of payer negotiated rates being used to determine future payment to hospitals.
In its analysis of the proposed rule, Modern Healthcare noted that CMS is “continuing its price transparency push, to the chagrin of some providers.”
However, the provisions in the proposed rule do, according to the CMS news release, advance several presidential executive orders, including:
Controversial Use of Payer Data for Future Medicare Rates
This latest CMS proposed rule (comments period ended July 10) moves forward “controversial price transparency” and has a new element of possible leverage of reported information for future Medicare payment rates, Healthcare Dive reported.
The 1,602-page proposed rule (CMS-1735-P) calls for these requirements in hospital Medicare cost reports:
Median payer-specific negotiated inpatient services;
“In addition, the agency is requesting information regarding the potential use of these data to set relative Medicare payment rates for hospital procedures,” the CMS news release states.
Thus, under the proposed rule, the nation’s 3,200 acute care hospitals and 360 long-term care hospitals would need to start reporting requested data for discharges effective Oct. 1, 2020, a CMS fact sheet explained.
In the news release following the release of the proposed rule, CMS Administrator Seema Verma had a positive spin. “Today’s payment rate announcement focuses on what matters most to help hospitals conduct their business and receive stable and consistent payment.”
However, the American Hospital Association (AHA) articulated a different view, even calling the requirement for hospitals to report private terms “unlawful.”
During in-court testimony, provider representatives declared that revealing rates they negotiate with payers violates First Amendment rights, Becker’s Hospital Review reported.
Officials for the federal government pushed back telling the federal judge that they can indeed require hospitals to publish negotiated rates. Hospital chargemasters, they added, don’t tell the full story, since consumers don’t pay those rates, Modern Healthcare reported.
In addition to the increase in inpatient payments and price transparency next steps, the recent CMS proposed rule also includes a new hospital payment category for chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy. The technique uses a patient’s own genetically-modified immune cells to treat some cancers, as an alternative to chemotherapy and other treatment covered by IPPS, CMS said in the news release.
The agency also expressed intent to remove payment barriers to new antimicrobials approved by the FDA’s Limited Population Pathway for Antibacterial and Antifungal Drugs (LPAD pathway). “The LPAD pathway encourages the development of safe and effective drug products that address unmet needs of patients with serious bacterial and fungal infections,” the CMS fact sheet states.
Clinical laboratories are gateways to healthcare. For hospital lab leaders, the notion of making tests prices easily accessible to patients and consumers will soon no longer be a nice idea—but a legal requirement.
Therefore, clinical laboratory leaders are advised to stay abreast of price transparency regulations and continue to prepare for sharing test prices and information with patients and the general public in ways that fulfill federal requirements.