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Finalized Price Transparency Rules for Insurers

Happy post-election day! Time to take a breather, right?

We are living in uncertain and contentious times. Actually, this is a bit of an understatement.

With Tuesday’s election, in addition to another erupting episode of the COVID-19 pandemic and see-saw economic news, one pertinent healthcare story was relegated to the third page of last week’s Wall Street Journal.

The story? “Health Insurers Face Price Transparency Rule.”

As directed by President Trump’s executive order in June 2019, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Department of Labor, and the Department of Treasury issued on October 29, 2020, the final rule for American consumers to have healthcare price transparency when shopping for hundreds of ‘shoppable services’ beginning on or after January 1, 2023. Insurance companies and self-funded employer health plans will be required to post in-network and out-of-network rates negotiated with providers, in addition to developing online price transparency tools to help assist patients with cost-sharing information.

Under the final rule, by January 1, 2023, insurers and employer payers will need to make available a list of 500 shoppable services through an online tool. And one year later, all other items and services must be added to those self-serve tools. Negotiated rates will also need to be machine-readable files showing rates for in-network providers and historical payments and charges to out-of-network providers.

This rule affects most non-grandfathered group health plans or health insurance issuers offering non-grandfathered health insurance coverage in the individual and group markets. A non-grandfathered health plan is one that was put in place after March 23, 2010, the date the Affordable Care Act (ACA) became law. A good primer on grandfathered vs. non-grandfathered health plans, can be found here.

The recent rule affects insurance companies, while this same executive order generated a final rule in November 2019 that requires hospitals to disclose the rates they negotiate with insurers and post the payer-specific negotiated rates online in a searchable and consumer-friendly manner for 300 of the most popular services. Hospitals are required to comply this coming January 1. The final rules on hospitals appeared to have survived challenges and lawsuits by hospitals.

Executive Orders

Developing healthcare policy via executive orders is akin to building a house on sand, it can prove to be short-lived. Once issued, executive orders remain in force until they are canceled, revoked, adjudicated unlawful or simply set to expire. It is typical, for example, that a new president reviews in-force executive orders while in the first few weeks in office. In the short term, executive orders may possibly be effective, however, when one-fifth of the economy evolves around healthcare, more substantive approaches are necessary to ensure long-term certainties.

Will Transparent Pricing Work in Healthcare?

Persuasive arguments have been made by hospitals, insurers and some economists that transparent medical prices will not change the fundamental problems baked into the existing healthcare system. After all, they argue that Americans seldom search for the cost of any given medical procedure, but rather, are most concerned that their desired doctor and hospital are in the health plan’s network of providers. They have even argued that price transparency “would confuse patients.” Advocates for price transparency claim otherwise.

Without question, seeking real medical prices is similar to searching for a needle in a haystack, and most people are disheartened with the process and eventually give up because the ‘system’ was not designed for ‘true’ payers to price and quality shop.

I will stand by what I wrote in a December 2019 blog on this topic:

“By itself, real prices made public will not solve the inherent problems that persist throughout the healthcare system, but price transparency is a good first-step to have. Clearly, it is not the sole remedy to a ‘system’ that requires massive incremental fixes. The push for healthcare ‘consumerism’ has been admittedly slow. However, it is likely that consumerism will find new legs due to third-party entrepreneurs and technology companies who will find disruptive ways to make pricing a relevant decision-making tool for many patients. All purchasers want the best value in the healthcare being purchased.”

The healthcare ‘system’ we have to date is doing what it was designed to do, but it’s time to reboot a system that desperately needs a new blueprint that accentuates intended consequences and minimizes costly (and sometimes deadly) adverse consequences.

For the record…

President Trump’s executive order for hospital price transparency does not at all suggest that he has an overall healthcare policy that would replace the Affordable Care Act. The fact is, he doesn’t appear to have a specific vision that addresses the holy trinity of healthcare: 1) coverage, 2) quality care, and 3) affordability. Platitude statements that his eventual healthcare plan will be “beautiful” does not cut it, and frankly is both disingenuous and empty. We need more, much more.

For price transparency to be meaningful in the future, providers will need to charge prices that will cover their costs. Additionally, providers will need to have a comprehensive understanding of how variable and fixed costs are allocated to the care they deliver, allowing them to make informed decisions on how to price their services to the more cost-conscious consumer.

With this ray of hope, try to enjoy your post-election life. And remember, stay safe!

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