By Zachary Gureasko, Class of 2017
On President Donald Trump’s website, one of his objectives is: “Require price transparency from all healthcare providers, especially doctors and healthcare organizations like clinics and hospitals. Individuals should be able to shop to find the best prices for procedures, exams or any other medical-related procedure.” President Trump believes that by allowing the individual to “shop around” for the best prices, competition among providers will increase and they will be forced to lower costs.
There are some organizations that already attempt to use existing data to provide consumers with cost estimates that they can use to make cost-informed choices. One such organization is FAIR Health, which is an independent, non-profit corporation whose mission is to promote cost transparency in healthcare costs. Using the website highlights some discrepancies in costs that would be helpful to consumers. For example, a procedure done in Nashville proper priced at $5,000 could potentially cost as low as half of that amount if it was performed more than 45 miles away from Nashville.
The health care industry has long been viewed as “hiding the ball,” so to speak, when it comes to the full prices of their services. Generally, the only information they offer before the patient elects to undergo a procedure or treatment is the immediate cost, such as a co-payment or deductible. Arguments have been made, even prior to President Trump’s call for increased transparency, for the provision of total costs to the consumer. The justification for this is that consumers with more information will be able to comparison shop and obtain the desired care for a relatively affordable price.
There are issues with price transparency from both provider and consumer perspectives. There are impediments to price reporting, such as contractual provisions preventing health plans from negotiating their rates with providers, as well as the indication that encouraging patients to be more price-conscious could have negative impacts on low-income consumers due to cost-shifting. Additionally, there is currently no standard structure for reporting prices, and the interplay between health care providers, insurance companies, and government agencies almost require some sort of formatted structure to be in place to enable providers to adequately report in a way that would achieve the intended result of these price transparency efforts.
Several studies have also shown that price transparency initiatives, such as requiring hospitals to publish the prices of their procedures and treatments up-front, do not truly lead to changes in either consumer behavior or pricing. This result is potentially attributable to a perceived correlation between high cost and high value, one that is not necessarily accurate in the health care industry as it might be in other industries. Another wrinkle in the fold from a consumer perspective is the notion that consumers will use price transparency tools in their decision-making. However, many consumers are unaware that such tools exist; moreover, even if they are aware of the tools’ existence, research has shown that this has little to no bearing on the consumers’ ultimate decisions or determinations.
As a final consideration, although efforts to increase price transparency are still in their early stages (and thus there is not enough data to form a fully conclusive study on their impact), not all health care services are amenable to “shopping around.” For instance, a person in an emergent situation will not be on his or her smartphone comparing the prices of different ERs. The person will assuredly utilize the nearest hospital with an emergency room. Emergency room services comprise a fairly substantial portion of health care costs. Therefore, it remains to be seen whether increased price transparency will truly increase competition or lower health care costs for consumers.