Tagged HHS

Trump Administration Seeks More Health Care Cost Details For Consumers

Anyone who has tried to “shop” for hospital services knows one thing: It’s hard to get prices.

President Donald Trump on Monday signed an executive order he said would make it easier.

The order directs agencies to draw up rules requiring hospitals and insurers to make public more information on the negotiated prices they hammer out in contract negotiations. Also, hospitals and insurers would have to give estimates to patients on out-of-pocket costs before they go in for nonemergency medical care.

The move, which officials said will help address skyrocketing health care costs, comes amid other efforts by the administration to elicit more price transparency for medical care and initiatives by Congress to limit so-called surprise bills. These are the often-expensive bills consumers get when they unwittingly receive care that is not covered by their insurers.

“This will put American patients in control and address fundamental drivers of health care costs in a way no president has done before,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar during a press briefing on Monday.

The proposal is likely to run into opposition from some hospitals and insurers who say disclosing negotiated rates could instead drive up costs.

Just how useful the effort will prove for consumers is unclear.

Much depends on how the administration writes the rules governing what information must be provided, such as whether it will include hospital-specific prices, regional averages or other measures. While the administration calls for a “consumer-friendly” format, it’s not clear how such a massive amount of data — potentially negotiated price information from thousands of hospitals and insurers for tens of thousands of services — will be presented to consumers.

“It’s well intended, but may grossly overestimate the ability of the average patient to decipher this information overload,” said Dan Ward, a vice president at Waystar, a health care payments service.

So, does this new development advance efforts to better arm consumers with pricing information? Some key point to consider:

Q: What does the order do?

It may expand on price information consumers receive.

The order directs agencies to develop rules to require hospitals and insurers to provide information “based on negotiated rates” to the public.

Currently, such rates are hard to get, even for patients, until after medical care is provided. That’s when insured patients get an “explanation of benefits (EOBs),” which shows how much the hospital charged, how much of a discount their insurer received and the amount a patient may owe.

In addition to consumers being unable to get price information upfront in many cases, hospital list prices and negotiated discount rates vary widely by hospital and insurer, even in a region. Uninsured patients often are charged the full amounts.

“People are sick and tired of hospitals playing these games with prices,” said George Nation, a business professor at Lehigh University who studies hospital contract law. “That’s what’s driving all of this.”

Some insurers and hospitals do provide online tools or apps that can help individual patients estimate out-of-pocket costs for a service or procedure ahead of time, but research shows few patients use such tools. Also, many medical services are needed without much notice — think of a heart attack or a broken leg — so shopping simply isn’t possible.

Administration officials say they want patients to have access to more information, including “advance EOBs” outlining anticipated costs before patients get nonemergency medical care. In theory, that would allow consumers to shop around for lower cost care.

Q: Isn’t this information already available?

Not exactly. In January, new rules took effect under the Affordable Care Act that require hospitals to post online their “list prices,” which hospitals set themselves and have little relation to actual costs or what insurers actually pay.

What resulted are often confusing spreadsheets that contain thousands of a la carte charges — ranging from the price of medicines and sutures to room costs, among other things — that patients have to piece together if they can to estimate their total bill. Also, those list charges don’t reflect the discounted rates insurers have negotiated, so they are of little use to insured patients who might want to compare prices hospital to hospital.

The information that would result from Trump’s executive order would provide more detail based on negotiated, discounted rates.

A senior administration official at the press briefing said details about whether the rates would be aggregated or relate to individual hospitals would be spelled out only when the administration puts forward proposed rules to implement the order later this year. It also is unclear how the administration would enforce the rules.

Another limitation: The order applies only to hospitals and the medical staff they employ. Many hospitals, however, are staffed by doctors who are not directly employed, or laboratories that are also separate. That means negotiated prices for services provided by such laboratories or physicians would not have to be disclosed.

Q: How could consumers use this information?

In theory, consumers could get information allowing them to compare prices for, say, a hip replacement or knee surgery in advance.

But that could prove difficult if the rates were not fairly hospital-specific, or if they were not lumped in with all the care needed for a specific procedure or surgery.

“They could take the top 20 common procedures the hospital does, for example, and put negotiated prices on them,” said Nation at Lehigh. “It makes sense to do an average for that particular hospital, so I can see how much it’s going to cost to have my knee replaced at St. Joe’s versus St. Anne’s.”

Having advance notice of out-of-pocket costs could also help patients who have high-deductible plans.

“Patients are increasingly subject to insurance deductibles and other forms of substantial cost sharing. For a subset of so-called shoppable services, patients would benefit from price estimates in advance that allow them to compare options and plan financially for their care,” said John Rother, president and CEO  at the advocacy group National Coalition on Health Care.

Q: Will this push consumers to shop for health care?

The short answer is maybe. Right now, it’s difficult, even with some of the tools available, said Lovisa Gustafsson, assistant vice president at the Commonwealth Fund, which has looked at whether patients use existing tools or the list price information hospitals must post online.

“The evidence to date shows patients aren’t necessarily the best shoppers, but we haven’t given them the best tools to be shoppers,” she said.

Posting negotiated rates might be a step forward, she said, but only if it is easily understandable.

It’s possible that insurers, physician offices, consumer groups or online businesses may find ways to help direct patients to the most cost-effective locations for surgeries, tests or other procedures based on the information.

“Institutions like Consumer Reports or Consumer Checkbook could do some kind of high-level comparison between facilities or doctors, giving some general information that might be useful for consumers,” said Tim Jost, a professor emeritus at the Washington and Lee University School of Law.

But some hospitals and insurers maintain that disclosing specific rates could backfire.

Hospitals charging lower rates, for example, might raise them if they see competitors are getting higher reimbursement from insurers, they say. Insurers say they might be hampered in their ability to negotiate if rivals all know what they each pay.

“We also agree that patients should have accurate, real-time information about costs so they can make the best, most informed decisions about their care,” said a statement from lobbying group America’s Health Insurance Plans. “But publicly disclosing competitively negotiated, proprietary rates will reduce competition and push prices higher — not lower — for consumers, patients, and taxpayers.”

Must-Reads Of The Week From Brianna Labuskes

Happy Friday! Have drug prices gotten so bad that patients are now turning to robbing banks to afford them? It sounds like something out of a movie script, but it’s what a Utah man told police when he was accused of just that. While it’s unverified whether he, in fact, had any prescriptions, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch for anyone paying attention to the state of drug prices in this country.

On to what you may have missed this week (including one of the wilder health stories I can recall reading in a while).

Lawmakers were busy, busy bees this week with hearings on health care issues.

The moment that drew perhaps the biggest spotlight was almost cinematic: A furious Jon Stewart took members to task in an almost nine-minute display of pointed, nonpartisan outrage over their feet-dragging on health care funding for 9/11 first responders and victims. Why is this “so damn hard?” the comedian asked. Firefighters, police and other first responders “did their jobs with courage, grace, tenacity and humility,” Stewart said. “Eighteen years later, do yours.” A bill allocating money to the fund for 70 years passed the House panel following the hearing.

The Associated Press: Jon Stewart Lashes Out at Congress Over 9/11 Victims Fund

The New York Times: How Jon Stewart Became a Fierce Advocate for 9/11 Responders

Reuters: House Panel Approves Permanent Sept. 11 Victims’ Compensation

But it wasn’t just made-for-TV drama on Capitol Hill this week. There was a flurry of activity related to health care. Here are some of the highlights, including a hearing on universal health coverage, which was heavy on fiery political rhetoric and light on substance:

The Hill: House Democrats Vote to Overturn Trump Ban on Fetal Tissue Research

CNN: Medicare for All Hearing Turns Into a Defense of Obamacare

Modern Healthcare: Arbitration for Surprise Medical Bills Splits House Panel

The Hill: Pelosi to Change Drug-Pricing Plan After Progressive Complaints

The Hill: Democrats Scuttle Attempt to Strike Hyde Amendment From Spending Bill

The Hill: House Panel Launches Investigation Into Juul


Even if “Medicare for All” were to overcome the daunting political hurdles lying in its path, it’s likely it would face so many legal challenges it could be bled out before it’s ever implemented. “There could be a death by a thousand-lawsuits approach,” Georgetown law professor Katie Keith told Politico. Other experts note, though, that there’s a difference between forcing someone to buy a product and banning something, which makes Medicare for All less vulnerable legally than the health law.

Politico: ‘Death by a Thousand Lawsuits’: The Legal Battles That Could Dog ‘Medicare for All’

Over in Chicago at the American Medical Association’s annual meeting, a medical student-led push to get the organization to reverse its decades-long opposition to single-payer health care failed. But, there’s more to it than that! A fabulous thread on Twitter from Bob Doherty of the American College of Physicians explains how the fact that the vote percentages were so close is remarkable in and of itself. The outcome would have been “unimaginable” in years past, he says.

The Hill: Major Doctors Group Votes to Oppose Single-Payer Health Care

And read Doherty’s thread here.


When premiums shot up over the past several years, more and more people turned to health care sharing ministries — which essentially connect people of similar faiths and set up a cost-sharing arrangement among the members. Because these models are not technically insurance, they’re allowed to skirt health law regulations and aren’t regulated by state commissioners. All of that was seen as a point in their favor from supporters at the time they joined them. But now it means that when bills aren’t paid on time, or at all, consumers have little recourse and officials’ hands are tied in holding the organizations responsible for their promises.

The Wall Street Journal: As Sharing Health-Care Costs Takes Off, States Warn: It Isn’t Insurance

Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues to chip away at the health law with its latest rule on health reimbursement arrangements, which will allow small firms to use tax-free accounts to help workers pay for insurance.

The Hill: Trump Officials Issue New Rule Aimed at Expanding Health Choices for Small Businesses


If you took anything away from last week’s drama over former Vice President Joe Biden’s stance on the Hyde Amendment it was probably that it seems the parties are dead set on their positions on abortion. But a look at how the public feels about the issue reveals blurred lines and nuance that doesn’t always fit into pat sound bites and political declarations. Many Americans struggle with the moral complexities surrounding abortion and their opinions can change from one question to the next, depending on the wording.

The New York Times: Politicians Draw Clear Lines on Abortion. Their Parties Are Not So Unified.

A new poll does show, however, that despite the ever-increasing threat to Roe v. Wade a strong majority of Americans don’t want to see it overturned.

NPR: Abortion Poll: Majority Wants to Keep Abortion Legal, but With Restrictions


Actress Jessica Biel ignited a firestorm of criticism after speaking out about a controversial California bill that would give a state official the final say on medical exemptions from vaccines. Once the blaze was lit, Biel tried to clarify that her issue was not with the vaccines themselves, but rather with the legislation introducing bureaucrats into the process. California’s governor has even hinted at similar concerns. The blowback, though, highlights how inherently inflammatory the topic has become as measles cases continue to climb across the country.

The New York Times: Here Is What Jessica Biel Opposes in California’s Vaccine Bill

In New York — the state at the heart of the record-busting measles outbreak — lawmakers passed a bill banning religious exemptions to vaccines. The governor signed it minutes later.

The Associated Press: New York Set to Cut Religious Exemption to Vaccine Mandates


I have kept you on tenterhooks long enough! One of the wilder health stories I’ve read in a long time comes from gruesomely fascinating Arizona Republic reporting. It’s a look into the thriving for-profit world of whole-body donations following death. Critics deem the practice as no better than “back alley grave robbing.” “There’s a price list for everything from a head to a shoulder, like they are a side of beef. They make money, absolutely, because there’s no cost in getting the bodies,” lawyer Michael Burg told The Arizona Republic. Supporters, however, see it as an affordable way to dispose of the remains of loved ones (which can actually be very expensive for low-income families).

Either way, it garnered my favorite quote of the week, asked by one potential donor: “Will I have a head in heaven?”

The Arizona Republic: Arizona Is a Hotbed for the Cadaver Industry, and Potential Donors Have Plenty of Options

The Arizona Republic: Despite 2-Year-Old State Law, Arizona’s Body Donation Industry Still Unregulated


In a move that left Flint, Mich., residents stunned and frustrated, prosecutors dropped all criminal charges against officials over the city’s water contamination crisis. Although prosecutors said the old investigation was bungled and there will be new charges, the announcement came like a fist to the jaw to people who already have had their faith in the government shattered.

Detroit Free Press: All Flint Water Crisis Criminal Charges Dismissed by AG’s Office


In the miscellaneous file this week:

• If you ever think you’re having a bad day at work, read this story about how an employee’s small photocopier mishap triggered a series of events that undermined a pair of late-stage clinical trials and ultimately scrapped a development deal between pharma companies.

Stat: How a Mishap at a Photocopier Derailed Clinical Trials and a Development Deal

• I am fascinated by the anatomy of pandemics, and this is a great tick-tock of the start of the last one. They don’t play out as they would in Hollywood, but, to me, the reality is even more interesting (I can’t be the only one, right?!).

Stat: The Last Pandemic Was a ‘Quiet Killer.’ Ten Years After Swine Flu, No One Can Predict the Next One

• World health officials have been begging farmers to stop using antibiotics on healthy farm animals in an effort to combat the ever-looming threat of resistance (which, as you know, terrifies yours truly). The farmer,s though, also have drugmakers whispering in their ears — despite a public facade from pharma of wanting to help combat the problem.

The New York Times: Warning of ‘Pig Zero’: One Drugmaker’s Push to Sell More Antibiotics

• Are you a sufferer of “white coat hypertension”? You might think it’s just because you get stressed out when you visit the doctor (join the club!), but a study shows that those anxiety-induced numbers are linked to an increased risk of a cardiac event.

Stat: Those With ‘White Coat Hypertension’ More Likely to Die From Cardiac Events


That’s it from me! Have a great and restful weekend. (Truly, insomnia can kill!)