The need for hospital price transparency

Greater price transparency doesn’t have to cost much money upfront, as most of what is required is attention. A critical majority of Americans — including doctors, patients, politicians, media and hospital board members — needs to insist on this outcome.

And I do mean insist. Just as, at some point, a critical mass of Americans demanded that the US end the Vietnam War. Otherwise, change is very unlikely to happen.

Some parts of the Affordable Care Act provided for transparent hospital pricing of individual services, and further regulations took effect in 2021. These were steps forward, yet the law has not turned the tide. It does not price packages of services, and it does not make it easy to compare one provider to another.

Recent research shows it is hard to even get a single consistent answer from a single provider. For instance, prices posted online and prices quoted over the telephone do not correlate very closely. For 41% of hospitals, the price difference was 50% or more. Clearly, suppliers aren’t really trying.


What if there were regular news coverage of the comparative transparency and standardization of hospital prices? Or more explicit and accessible quality ratings? Or a prominent non-profit, run by medical professionals, devoted solely to making price and quality more transparent? Employers also could evaluate health insurance companies based on their performance by these criteria, much as they currently use ESG analysis. There could be an index of progress, like those national debt clocks one sometimes sees.

Is it absurd to hope that this topic might regularly trend on social media? What if there were public marches in front of hospitals (they can chant, “How much cash for a heart bypass”)? Who will be the Greta Thunberg of price transparency?

That is all from my latest Bloomberg column.


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