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Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

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

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.

Meena Seshamani, MD, PhD
“CMS expects hospitals to comply with the Hospital Price Transparency regulations that require providing clear, accessible pricing information online about the items and services they provide,” said Meena Seshamani, MD, PhD, Director of CMS, in a statement provided to Fierce Healthcare. “This enforcement action affirms the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to making healthcare pricing information accessible to people across the country and we are committed to ensuring that consumers have the information they need to make fully informed decisions regarding their healthcare.” Clinical laboratories also are required to comply with federal price transparency regulations. (Photo copyright: Modern Healthcare.)

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.   

JP Schlingman

Related Information:

Hospitals Face Penalties for First Time for Failing to Make Prices Public

CMS Issues First Price Transparency Fines to Two Georgia Hospitals

After Months of Warnings, CMS Hands Out Its First Fines to Hospitals Failing on Price Transparency

KLAS: Hospitals Say Price Transparency Remains Too Confusing and Pricey to Implement

Price Transparency 2022: Hospital Perceptions of CMS Regulation

Semi-Annual Hospital Price Transparency Compliance Report: February 2022

Report: Only 14.3% of Hospitals Compliant with Price Transparency Rules One Year In

Hospital Associations and Healthcare Groups Battle HHS Efforts to Expand Pricing Transparency Rules to Include Negotiated Rates with Payers

Health Insurers and Hospital Groups Argue Price Transparency Rules on Hospitals, Clinical Laboratories, and Other Providers Will Add Costs and ‘Confuse’ Consumers

COVID-19 Surveillance Screening Program Used in Chicago School Systems Comes Under Scrutiny by Illinois Department of Public Health Following New York Times Article

Dozens of Chicago-area schools were reopened with the help of an $11 COVID-19 saliva test, but the qualifications of the clinical laboratory, and whether it complied with federal regulations, were called into question

It was only a matter of time when newly-formed clinical laboratories—taking advantage of the federal government’s loosening of regulations to promote COVID-19 testing—drew the attention of state regulators and the national news media. This is what happened at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill.

In March, the New York Times published an article, titled, “Why Virus Tests at One Elite School Ran Afoul of Regulators.” The article highlighted the coronavirus screening program implemented at New Trier High School and suggested that “New Trier may have inadvertently violated federal regulations on testing,” adding that “the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) opened an investigation into the lab.”

SafeGuard Surveillance of Brookfield, Ill., was contracted to perform the routine saliva-based testing. SafeGuard analyzed saliva samples from students, teachers, and school staff to detect the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. New Trier was just one of several school districts that contracted with SafeGuard for the testing, which costs $11 per test. The samples were typically processed the same day.

“This has been a really valuable safety mitigation for our district to make our staff, students, and community feel safer,” Chris McClain, Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations at Glenbard High School District 87, told the Chicago Tribune. “We’ve been very pleased with the program.” Glenbard also contracted with SafeGuard for the COVID-19 surveillance screening.

COVID-19 Surveillance or Screening?

Though the surveillance screening testing was working as intended for multiple Chicago areas school systems, the New York Times article called into question whether SafeGuard—which at the time lacked CLIA (Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments) certification—was qualified to conduct COVID-19 screening testing.

The article also alleged that SafeGuard was led by a scientist who was not qualified under the federal guidelines to run a diagnostic laboratory, and that the saliva test being used was not authorized for COVID-19 testing by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

It came down to whether SafeGuard was conducting “surveillance” testing, which does not require CLIA-certification, or “screening” which does.

SafeGuard was founded by Edward Campbell, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Loyola University in Chicago. Campbell, a virologist with decades of experience developing tests for HIV, “adapted a saliva-based coronavirus test last summer and first established a [COVID-19] lab for the suburban school district where he serves on the board,” Patch News reported.

Microbiologist Edward M. Campbell, PhD (above), founded SafeGuard Surveillance toward the end of 2020 after demand for COVID-19 screening he had been conducting for various local school systems increased dramatically. In January, the startup clinical laboratory was running about 25,000 tests per week, the Riverside/Brookfield Landmark reported. (Photo copyright: Loyola University.)

SafeGuard Claims It Complied with Federal Regulations

SafeGuard’s COVID-19 screening tool utilizes RT-LAMP (reverse transcription loop-mediated isothermal amplification) to look for the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus in saliva samples. This test is less sensitive than the more commonly used polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test that uses a nasal swab to detect the virus. However, the RT-LAMP test is considered reliable, particularly in individuals with a high viral load. The RT-LAMP test also is less expensive than the PCR test, which makes it appealing for public school systems. 

To use the RT-LAMP test, faculty, staff, and students spit into test tubes at home and then take the sample to their school or other drop-off location. Campbell’s lab then processes the samples.

After the New York Times article came out, both New Trier and SafeGuard denied they had done anything wrong, and that their screening program complied with government regulations for COVID-19 testing. Campbell maintained that he did not need the CLIA certification to operate his lab for testing and that SafeGuard complied with all federal regulations. Nevertheless, in March, SafeGuard applied for and received CLIA-certification to “conduct ‘screening’ testing, instead of just ‘surveillance’ testing,” Patch News reported.

“We’re doing everything we can to operate in good faith under the guidance that clearly exists,” Campbell told The Chicago Tribune.

In a statement, New Trier district officials said, “New Trier has also met with local and state health authorities to review our use of the program and they have not directed us to change our use of it. From the time the program began, New Trier has been clear that the saliva program is non-diagnostic and must be confirmed by a lab test. To suggest otherwise is false,” Patch News reported.

Surveillance Testing versus Screening

In August, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which oversees CLIA labs, released guidelines that stated COVID-19 testing could be performed in clinical laboratories that were not CLIA-certified so long as patient-specific results are not reported.

This “surveillance testing” is intended to identify the disease within a population group and not diagnose individuals. If a person tests positive for COVID-19 via SafeGuard’s saliva test, the individual is directed to get an FDA-approved test to confirm the diagnosis.

“We do definitely see the value of surveillance testing and how that can be used to help schools make informed decisions about remote, in-person, or hybrid learning,” Melaney Arnold, State Public Information Officer for the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) told the Chicago Tribune. She added that the IDPH wants to provide schools with the tools they need to navigate the pandemic.

Following the New York Times article about New Trier High School and SafeGuard’s COVID-19 screening program, the Illinois Department of Public Health opened an investigation into the company. However, the investigation has ended, and the state agency is not taking any further action against SafeGuard, Patch News reported.

It’s worth noting that it was the FDA’s relaxing of federal regulations that encouraged the development of startup clinical laboratories like SafeGuard in the first place. There is, apparently, a fine line between surveillance and screening, and clinical laboratories engaged in one or the other should confirm they have the required certifications.

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

Why Virus Tests at One Elite School Ran Afoul of Regulators

An $11 Saliva Test for COVID-19 Helped Dozens of Chicago-area Schools Reopen. So Why Are Administrators Scrambling to Defend it Now?

When COVID Came Calling, Brookfield School Official Acted

Safeguard Saliva Testing Program Certified After State Scrutiny