What The Court Ruled About Hospital Price Transparency

This week on the Houston Healthcare Initiative podcast, Dr. Steven Goldstein takes a deeper dive into a court decision where hospitals must reveal private negotiated rates with insurers starting this coming January 1, 2021. Plus, he will provide more insight into how hospitals decide what and how much to charge us, and man is that a story. It’s all more than a little complex. The podcast is available on all the popular podcast networks including SoundCloud, iHeart, and Spotify among others.

How Are Prices Now Assessed

Hospital prices are not based on the free market. Instead, prices are agreed on via secret agreements between hospitals and insurance companies. The truth is that pricing for medical services as paid by insurance companies are artificially set and not competitive at all. Prices are agreed to in advance by the hospital and the insurance company, not disclosed to the public. “We are led to believe that our insurance providers negotiate on behalf of their policyholders,” Dr. Goldstein told his audience. This is not the case. The court has ruled that this will no longer be permitted, that hospitals will have to reveal these negotiated rates and thus hospitals must reveal private negotiated rates .

Hospitals must reveal private negotiated rates to the public.
Hospitals must reveal private negotiated rates to the public.The court ruling that upheld a Trump Administration policy that forces hospitals to reveal their prices.

Why Hospitals Object

One reason many hospitals do not list their actual prices is that, according to them, some cases are more complicated than others. “An appendectomy may go smoothly or may be complicated by other factors such as adhesions from a previous surgery that caused scarring,” Dr. Goldstein said. “This may require additional operating room time resulting in a higher cost.  Thus hospitals claim they can only give estimates.”

Alternatively, this could be handled in one of two ways. 1). Publish the price for each procedure at what the hospital perceives as the average price. Then find ways to cut costs so that average cost is lowered resulting in increased profit for the hospital.  2). Alternatively, publish a price for operating room time by the hour that would include all the ancillary charges + publish the range of operating room times for each procedure.

How Prices Are Set Now

With the use of computer technology, hospitals are able to establish a charge for each product or service, no matter how small. “Every aspirin, every blood test, every x-ray, every bandage, every suture has a charge; Dr. Goldstein said. “Some of these charges beg credulity e.g. the $20 aspirin. All these charges are added up to give the total hospital charge. Of course, this doesn’t include multiple physician charges that are separate.” This all resulted in the Trump administration’s order that hospitals must reveal private negotiated rates to the public.

But the final charge is the “sticker price”. The insurance companies never pay this price. They have a secret, negotiated price based on the Medicare price for those services.