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Hospital Price Transparency Took Effect New Year’s Day
But, Where is it?

Happy 2021!!!

In this brand-new year, imagine that you have found your most desired showroom vehicle at a local dealership. After haggling with the salesperson (and the backroom manager), a process that is similar to playing ‘Let’s Make a Deal,’ you are handed the following purchase agreement that reads (in short):

This negotiated price is an estimate only and is not a quote or a guarantee of the amount that you will eventually owe…

Now wouldn’t that be a twist on the old way of doing things! But in healthcare, this is precisely the norm.

Recent Ruling on Hospital Transparency Pricing

On Tuesday, December 29, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit rebuked the hospital industry’s legal attempt to banish new rules on price transparency from taking effect on New Year’s Day. I have written about the new rules frequently in the past. The price transparency rule, published in November 2019, was pushed by President Trump and HHS Secretary Alex Azar.

As it now stands, barring a President Biden ‘stay of execution’ order to relax these rules, hospitals must post their negotiated rates online beginning January 1, 2021. The online rates must be conveyed in a machine-readable format and also list their negotiated rates for at least 300 shoppable services in a consumer-friendly format – including 70 services picked by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

Starting Jan. 1, 2022, health plans and insurance companies will have to provide a publicly available, updated data file on costs. By January 1, 2023, payers, such as commercial insurance companies and large, self-funded employer health plans will also need to comply with similar price transparency rules demanded of hospitals. This was discussed in my November blog, “Finalized Price Transparency Rules for Insurers.”

Not surprisingly, the American Hospital Association is disappointed by this latest decision and, according to their General Counsel, Melinda Hatton, “…are reviewing the decision carefully to determine (our) next steps.”

It’s Now 2021 – Have These Rates Been Posted?

On January 2, I’m sitting at my computer attempting to discern what actions a few Central Iowa hospitals have taken to comply with this new requirement to inform Iowan’s about specific ‘negotiated’ health prices, not just merely ‘estimated’ prices. Estimations, I might add, are simply playing a game of horseshoes and hand grenades, providing just enough information to check boxes to ‘inform’ an already confused public.

Below is a rather quick assessment of three Des Moines-area hospitals – in addition to the Iowa Hospital Association – and what they have listed on their websites as of January 2, 2021. Since that date, any changes made by the following organizations have not been reflected in my comments found below.

MercyOne – Des Moines

As I understand the requirements, MercyOne’s ‘Estimate Your Costs’ webpage does not conform with the new regulations on hospital price transparency. This webpage allows one to download a list of their ‘standard charges’ (in Excel format), but does not provide the ‘negotiated’ rates by payer. MercyOne cautions that this information is only a ‘partial estimate,’ as it does not include other fees beyond hospitals charges, such as “physician fees, charges for your emergency room physician, radiologist or anesthesiologist”.

Before an interested patient can gain access to “generate the most accurate estimate for your health care procedure,” one must click “Estimate Your Costs” and agree to the ‘Disclaimer’ before providing your name, DOB, type of desired medical procedure and your insurance vendor. I attempted to complete this exercise but was met with ‘an error’ both times.

Just as troubling to me is this disclaimer: “Benefits and eligibility are subject to change at any time. This estimate may contain private information that is protected by law. If you are not the patient, patient representative or guarantor, sharing, copying or using this information in any way is against the law.

Frankly, I thought this regulation was all about ‘transparency’ of negotiated medical prices. If I want to publish what MercyOne has negotiated with any particular payer, I should be able to do so. I will assume this site has not been adequately updated and, consequently, this language requires a revision.

UnityPoint Health – Des Moines

The Patient Charges and Costs webpage for UnityPoint Health appears to be helpful, but when looking more closely, it has not changed to reflect the new regulation. The UnityPoint site refers to the January 1, 2019 requirement that hospitals list their ‘standard charges’ of Diagnostic-Related Group (DRG) charges. This information should be deleted from the website as it no longer is compliant with the new regulations. UnityPoint Health cautions the patient to ‘first contact your insurance provider’ who may provide their own ‘estimates’ for out-of-pocket costs based on the insurance plan of the patient. But doing so will likely invite the patient to enter a new labyrinth of confusion that is full of disclaimers, etc.

UnityPoint’s ‘Financial Estimate‘ webpage requires completion and submission before releasing prices. I did so, but when it was submitted, I received the following message: “Thank you for your request.  We’re striving to provide an easier and more personal way for you to plan your health care. A UnityPoint Health financial representative will reach out to you within 2 business days to provide your estimate information.

This website is both confusing and non-compliant – based on my review date (January 2).

Iowa Hospital Association (IHA)

After a cursory review of the IHA website, there are no specific updates that provide revised information about this latest regulation.

Broadlawns Medical Center – Des Moines

With Broadlawns, we actually have a BINGO!

Two days before the required posting of negotiated rates, Broadlawns posted their ‘Pricing Directory’. Broadlawns provides this information in two formats: PDF file and CVS file. The 450-page PDF has the following disclaimer at the top of the first page:

This is an estimate only and is not a quote or a guarantee of the amount that you will owe or what the charges for services will be. The actual charges may be lower or higher than the estimates depending upon many factors – including actual services rendered, complications, your particular health care needs, and your actual insurance policy coverage.

The 450-page PDF includes 15 health insurance products offered by eight insurance companies: Aetna, CIGNA, Coventry, Health Partners, Medica, United Healthcare and Wellmark. Many shoppable services are broken down by professional (physician) and hospital services. You will find the procedure code, gross amount of the service, cash discount offered, negotiated rate with that particular insurer, and the minimum and maximum charge.

Out of sheer curiosity, I did a quick price comparison between Wellmark PPO and United Healthcare PPO for a few random procedures at Broadlawns (found below). Please note, this comparison does not suggest that these negotiated prices are the same at other hospitals. This information is only specific to Broadlawns Medical Center.In lieu of searching for the correct procedure code and shoppable services at Broadlawns, the patient can request a ‘Personalized Price Estimate’ from Broadlawns using the web-based Cost Estimator Request Form (or by calling a Broadlawns financial representative).


Because each patient encounter is so unique and may require various procedures, caveats by hospitals are certainly understandable when quoting specific procedure code prices. There are MANY hurdles to full-blown price transparency that cannot be categorically described in this particular blog. One obvious hiccup is – just how much the patient has remaining on his/her deductible and out-of-pocket maximum to determine their personal liability for the procedure(s). The patient will need to toggle between the health provider for specific prices and with their insurance vendor on whether the service is covered by their plan and, if so, how much the patient will be liable to pay. Transparency in medical prices help, but clarity on how to use this transparency will be problematic until a new world of simplicity evolves.

Many experts agree that price transparency in healthcare will eventually be a valuable thing to have, but this particular requirement is merely a first step toward a ‘Marie Kondo’ approach that will hopefully clean up a very messy industry when it comes to pricing. Kaiser Health News just published an article about the implications of having transparent medical pricing for consumers.

I envision that enterprising third parties will take this newly-released public data and morph it into usable consumer-centric information that can be easily accessed through a smart phone app for the patient. In addition, innovative clinician tools can help health providers perform real-time cost/value trade-offs with the patient while ordering procedures and diagnostic tests that impact the cost.

Simplifying a complex system will take patience, time and a general willingness to invoke needed change.

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The Illusion of Getting ‘Bigger’

Sometimes Size MattersAmerican culture is all about the belief that “bigger is better.” Heck, just stop by the local convenience store and you will find patrons walking away from the cash register with a ‘Big Gulp’ beverage. (No wonder obese Americans now outnumber overweight Americans.)

We seem obsessed with having the biggest ‘something’ – whether it is a city, town square, tallest building, largest (and most expensive) house or maybe a huge bicycle fortress crossing the state during late July. No doubt, it can be enticing to claim something enormous.

In both the hospital and health insurance industries, the fixation on growth is being taken to a whole new level. Nowadays, growth does not necessarily occur organically, such as through offering newly-innovative products and services that provide added value to customers. As customarily assumed, growth is intended to drive down costs, increase negotiating leverage and ultimately boost profits.

Controlled, organic growth seems to be much too slow for investors and today’s conventional wisdom of doing business. Enter acquisitions and mergers of competitors.

Insurance companies are making headlines with eye-popping takeover bids. For example, UnitedHealth Group, the nation’s largest health carrier, with expected revenue this year of $143 billion, has made a move to acquire Aetna, the nation’s third largest health carrier. The second largest carrier, Anthem, Inc., is pursuing Cigna Corp. They just made a takeover offer of $47.5 billion – which was subsequently rejected as being too cheap. If this isn’t enough, Aetna is reportedly interested in buying Humana, the fourth-largest carrier in the country. Big is better, right? After all, lobbying does matter a great deal in healthcare.

The impact on various markets across the country will most certainly affect local competition, and because of this, such takeovers will face rigorous antitrust scrutiny by the U.S. Justice Department for anti-competitive reasons. The reality is that healthcare markets are local, so unless a larger carrier gains a larger percentage of insureds in a given market, certain markets will not be impacted.

Hospitals have also made a myriad of moves in the recent past through mergers and acquisitions. Physician practices are gobbled up in Pac-Man fashion. Hospitals are concerned that larger insurance oligopolies will gain more clout by keeping provider payments lower – yet increase prices of insurance products to purchasers – employers and individuals. It appears the new arms race is not so much about nuclear bombs, but rather, healthcare purchasing clout. The hunger to grow escalates when the other side expands – a never-ending treadmill of activity.

So what does this mean for healthcare customers like you and me? Through sleight-of-hand, carriers and providers provide the illusion that patients are the focus in this post-ACA environment. But unfortunately, due primarily to the complexities inherent in healthcare, the public continues to buy into this perpetual illusion that care will somehow get better and become less expensive because our best interests are the center of this activity. The illusion continues.

Let’s be honest, it’s about the bottom line – healthcare is in the money business.

Third parties develop websites on price information coming from aged-claims data that usually are at least two years removed from the unknown prices now being used. Patient engagement is critical within healthcare, yet, according to research conducted by Nielsen/Harris Interactive Strategic Health Perspectives, patients with chronic conditions who have significant out-of-pocket exposure are increasingly feeling disillusioned by our healthcare ‘system.’

As mentioned in previous blogs, gaining the ‘public trust’ is the fundamental business in which the health provider community should be operating. But customers who feel hopeless about their healthcare most likely will not have the trust to use transparency tools to make optimal healthcare decisions – even when more relevant tools eventually become available.

Growth by acquisition and mergers will not gain public trust. If consumerism has a chance to work in healthcare, we must allow it to work by agreeing that, when seeking non-emergency care, consumers are entitled to receive accurate cost information about their out-of-pocket exposure. This information can be provided through the collaboration of providers and carriers. If they are unwilling or unable, other third parties can fill this role. Without a doubt, the healthcare and health insurance worlds are in a full state of disruption – complacency is NOT an option for those who wish to survive.

Further, consumers must have access to quality metrics about the provider care they seek. Gaining a consensus on quality metrics will be no easy task, but it is the right course to take when rewarding those providers who perform the care we assumed we were receiving in the past.

Mergers and acquisitions may be great for owners, stockholders, corporate executives and the M&A consultants who promote such activities. But it only prolongs the REAL work that is needed for healthcare to become safe and affordable to all.

Bigger is not better. Smarter is better.

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