2014’s Healthcare Price Transparency Report Card Reveals Few States Are Making It Easy and Fast for Consumers to See the Prices Charged by Hospitals, Physicians, and Medical Laboratories

One reason is that the healthcare price websites operated by most states are inadequate, ‘poorly designed or poorly functioning’

Efforts to encourage price transparency at hospitals and other providers are making little progress. That’s one conclusion to be made from the second annual Report Card on State Price Transparency Laws, that gave a failing grade to 45 states.

This information is relevant because more consumers are now enrolled in high-deductible health plans. As a consequence, clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups must now handle requests from patients who want to know the cost of their medical laboratory testing in advance of service. As well, many of these consumers want to negotiate prices with their laboratory provider. (more…)

Clinical Pathology Labs Should Plan on Greater Transparency in Test Prices and Patient Outcomes

At least seven states have laws mandating an on-line database showing the cost of medical treatments by different providers

At both the federal and state level, the trend toward greater transparency in health-care pricing continues to spread. This is a trend which is designed to require providers—including clinical laboratories and pathology groups—to make their prices for laboratory testing easily accessible to patients and consumers.

Across the nation, federal and state governments are implementing policies aimed at helping consumers make informed health-care decisions. Ultimately, pricing transparency is expected to contain rising health-care costs by creating consumer-driven competition between providers. This is intended to increase price competition among hospitals and physicians’ offices initially. Medical laboratories will eventually be included.


Innovative California NPR Project Takes on Healthcare Pricing Transparency

NPR stations in San Francisco and Los Angeles crowdsourced healthcare cost data from listeners to reveal arbitrary pricing of medical services

Over the past two years, Dark Daily has published a number of stories dealing with price transparency, or lack of it, most of which involved government agencies or nonprofits concerned about the high cost of healthcare services. This latest effort to shine a light on healthcare pricing, however, comes from National Public Radio (NPR).

San Francisco’s NPR station, KQED, initiated PriceCheck, an innovative project designed to reveal just how arbitrary medical pricing is in California, in June 2014. KQED partnered with Los Angeles’ NPR station, KPCC, and ClearHealthCosts.com, a New York City start-up that publishes a national list of low to high charges for common healthcare services, to crowdsource healthcare cost data.

The two NPR stations appealed to listeners to share the charges they paid for four medical services: mammograms, lower-back MRIs, IUDs, and diabetes testing. Hundreds of people responded to share prices they paid for these services, and thousands of people looked up prices on ClearHealthCosts.com. (more…)

Study Comparing Data from Hospitals and Insurers Finds Major Hospitals Still Not Complying with Price Transparency Law

But insurers are complying under the Transparency in Coverage regulations and that is where discrepancies in the disclosure of prices to the public have been found

Despite federal regulations requiring hospitals to publicly post their prices in advance of patient services, some large health systems still do not follow the law. That’s according to a new Transparency in Coverage Report from PatientRightsAdvocate.org (PRA), which found that some hospitals are “flouting” the federal Hospital Price 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.

Sally C. Pipes

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.)

Prices Paid by Insurers Missing in Hospital Files

PRA analysts compared publicly available Standard Charge File (SCF) data from seven Ascension Health and HCA Healthcare hospitals in Texas and Florida, and Transparency in Coverage disclosures from Blue Cross Blue Shield, Cigna, and UnitedHealthcare.

“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:

Ascension Seton Medical Center, Austin, Texas:

  • The hospital SCF for shoppable services showed “N/A” (not available).
  • UnitedHealthcare files included 16 rates it negotiated by plan and BCBS shared 12 prices by plan.

Ascension St. Vincent’s Clay County Hospital, Middleburg, Florida:

  • The hospital’s SCF “did not contain negotiated rates” for services by Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) codes.
  • UnitedHealthcare showed negotiated rates for 69 CPT codes.

HCA Florida Northside Hospital, St. Petersburg, Florida:

  • PRA analysts found in the hospital SCF file “a range of 300 codes” and “one single negotiated rate.”
  • The insurer, meanwhile, displayed “many different rates corresponding to 300+ codes in the range.”

HCA Houston Healthcare Clear Lake, Webster, Texas:

HCA Medical City, Fort Worth, Texas:

  • The provider displayed in its SCF “one distinct dollar price for all 62 MS-DRG codes that appeared as a group.”
  • BCBS of Texas Blue Premier plan displayed 58 distinct negotiated rates for the codes in that group.

The report also summarized findings for:

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.

In “Two Georgia Hospitals First to Be Fined by CMS for Failure to Comply with Hospital Price Transparency Law,” we reported how CMS had 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.

And in “Wall Street Journal Investigation Finds Computer Code on Hospitals’ Websites That Prevents Prices from Being Shown by Internet Search Engines, Circumventing Federal Price Transparency Laws,” we covered the Wall Street Journal’s report on “hundreds of hospitals” that had “embed code in their websites that prevented Alphabet Inc.’s Google and other search engines from displaying pages with the price lists.”

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.

Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

PRA New Report: Insurance Pricing Files Reveal That Hospitals are Hiding Prices

Transparency in Coverage

Hospitals Are Still Hiding Costs

Hospitals Are Hiding Prices from Patients, Advocacy Report Says

Large Health Systems Are Being Called Out for Lack of Price Transparency

Two Georgia Hospitals First to Be Fined by CMS for Failure to Comply with Hospital Price Transparency Law

Latest Push by CMS for Increased Price Transparency Highlights Opportunities and Risks for Clinical Laboratories, Pathology Groups

As federal regulatory agencies continue to push transparency, hospitals, medical labs, anatomic pathology groups, and other healthcare providers must develop strategies for remaining competitive and maintaining patient volume

More price transparency continues to be a goal of Medicare officials. Some clinical laboratory managers and pathologists may be unaware of a proposed rule issued by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in April that would require hospitals to post prices online as early as this January 1, 2019.

This action is a definitive demonstration of how the federal healthcare program continues to scrutinize how healthcare organizations communicate with patients and post their prices. This pressure on healthcare systems and individual providers extends to the clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups that support them. Without a plan to address these changes, medical laboratory test volume and practice revenues can be severely impacted.

Recent coverage from RevCycleIntelligence indicates that this trend is only just getting started.

“When you go to receive a healthcare service, there are always going to be situations where you can’t know what the costs will be, especially around emergency situations and some acute situations,” Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) Administrator Seema Verma told RevCycleIntelligence. “But for a lot of us, we’re going in for planned procedures. You should be able to know what it’s going to cost you.”

In April 2018, CMS posted a proposed rule that requires hospitals to post standard service rates online and update their pricing lists at least annually starting January 1, 2019. While many healthcare organizations currently report pricing to state boards and other online directories, this rule, if enacted, could make it easier for consumers to source reliable pricing information before obtaining care.

“We are concerned that challenges continue to exist for patients due to insufficient price transparency. Such challenges include patients being surprised by out-of-network bills for physicians—such as anesthesiologists and radiologists who provide services at in-network hospitals—and patients being surprised by facility fees and physician fees for emergency room visits. We also are concerned that chargemaster data are not helpful to patients for determining what they are likely to pay for a particular service or hospital stay,” the CMS proposed rule states.

In the proposed rule that references out-of-network bills, pathologists should have been included as a hospital-based physician service—such as anesthesiologists and radiologists—that submits bills to patients for care provided in the hospital. Pathology practice administrators may want to review the specific language of the proposed rule to understand how hospitals served by the pathology group will be required to post prices.

Seema Verma

“If you’re buying a car or pretty much anything else, you’re able to do some research,” Seema Verma (above), Administrator, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services told RevCycleIntelligence. “You’re able to know what the quality is. You’re able to make comparisons. Why shouldn’t we be able to do that in healthcare? Every healthcare consumer wants that.” (Photo copyright: Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.)

Transparency Concerns Lead to Additional Questions from CMS

Alongside the proposed rule, CMS also is issuing a request for information (RFI) to give healthcare experts an opportunity to:

  1. Demonstrate the impact of current proposals; and,
  2. Make recommendations to further align the proposal with both the needs of healthcare organizations and service providers as well as the cost-reduction goals of CMS.

Key questions, according to RevCycleIntelligence, include:

  • How should “standard charges” be defined (e.g., average or median rates for chargemaster items; average or median rates for groups of services commonly billed together as determined by the hospital; or average discount off the chargemaster amount across all payers)?
  • What types of information would help patients understand hospital prices and patient financial responsibility? How should hospitals use this information to inform patients and decision-making?
  • Should healthcare providers be required to tell patients about their out-of-pocket costs for a service prior to care delivery? Should providers even play a role in informing patients of out-of-pocket costs?
  • Should CMS require providers to give patients information on what Medicare pays for a service?
  • How should CMS enforce healthcare price transparency requirements? Should hospitals have to attest to meeting requirements?

Implications for Healthcare Services and Diagnostics Providers

RevCycleIntelligence reports that between CMS rules and bills introduced by Senators, an increase in healthcare transparency pricing is likely. These requirements will continue to apply pressure to clinical laboratories, anatomic pathology groups, and other diagnostics providers.

Much like the importance of communicating value to the new wave of payer and physician partnerships emerging around the country, transparency will offer an opportunity to communicate value to consumers.

However—particularly for high-margin services and assays—laboratories must create strategies to address pricing transparency and communicate the value of their services if they hope to maintain volumes and financial integrity at existing levels.

A study conducted by Johns Hopkins University researchers and published in The American Surgeon also highlights benefits that transparency might hold outside of simple regulatory compliance.

Analyzing data from six ambulatory care centers from 2016, they found that five out of six reported increases in both patient volume and revenue after adopting price transparency. Half of the centers also reported a reduction in administrative burden—a concern that medical laboratories must also address as streamlining operations and optimizing efficiency becomes a core part of successful lab operation in the face of healthcare reform.

Clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups should develop a strategy for addressing new transparency requirements. That strategy should include ways to effectively communicate their value to both healthcare providers and consumers. Should the CMS proposed rule progress to a final rule, failure to address pricing transparency may result in enforcement and compliance concerns—a critical issue for laboratories already facing tighter markets and increased regulatory and payer scrutiny.

—Jon Stone


Related Information:

“Just the Beginning” of Healthcare Price Transparency, Verma Says

CMS Aims to Catalyze Advancements in Consumer Price Transparency

Verma: CMS Will “Use Every Lever” for Promoting Interoperability, Data Access

CMS to Require Healthcare Price Transparency Online for Hospitals

Publish Your Prices, Boost Your Bottom Line

Healthcare Price Transparency in U.S. Not Improved in Recent Years

The Impact of Price Transparency for Surgical Services

Patients’ Views on Price Shopping and Price Transparency