A pedestrian walks past a mural advertising a website that providers health care pricing information. (Julia Rendleman/ For the Virginia Mercury)
A new online tool aimed at centralizing hospital service prices from across the state was launched by the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association on Wednesday. The tool consolidates public access to online links to pricing at every hospital in Virginia in order to “help support patients’ health care decision-making,” according to the VHHA.
In 2019, the Trump administration used executive action to institute a rule that requires hospitals to publish health care service costs. Beginning in 2021, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services put that mandate into effect, directing hospitals to “post online a machine-readable file and either a consumer-friendly file with at least 300 shoppable services or a price estimator tool so consumers can shop and compare costs between providers.”
Advocates of price transparency like the national group Power to the Patients argue that giving patients prices allows them to compare costs and shop around for services. Some modeling suggests that publishing the prices could save consumers money for some services.
However, research by Amitabh Chandra, director of health policy research at the Harvard Kennedy School, and others find that most people who reduce their health care expenses do so by reducing demand — getting less high-value health care — rather than price shopping. Experts also point out that these price lists are difficult for the general public to decipher, since they’re often spreadsheets than can have thousands of entries.
For example, the INOVA Loudoun Hospital standard charges list has 69,970 line items. VHC Health’s data set has about 46,000. Sentara’s website requires the user to enter personal information before getting an estimate.
They can also be labeled unintelligible service names like “2-D ECHO TTE COMP NO CONTRST.” As a headline in The New York Times put it in 2019, “Hospitals Must Now Post Prices. But It May Take a Brain Surgeon to Decipher Them.”
Full compliance with the rule by hospitals has been spotty and an investigation by The Wall Street Journal found that some hospitals were blocking the appearance of price lists from search engine results.
Another centralized price transparency tool that already exists is Virginia Health Information’s Healthcare Pricing Transparency Report. Rather than providing granular data on service pricing in each individual healthcare system, the report displays the median cost of common procedures and tests like MRIs, emergency room stays, ambulance rides and births.
It also includes the lower and upper limits of prices across the state and breaks down the median price by region, as healthcare costs can vary widely across geographic area, hospital system, insurer and even within the same hospital system.
For example, a C-section delivery can cost a patient anywhere from $13,192 to $25,017, with an almost $5,000 difference between the median price in Southwest Virginia and that in the northern part of the state.
The database also includes links to the financial assistance policies of individual healthcare providers. Before the new tool, the VHHA ran Virginia PricePoint, a “public-facing website created to provide basic demographic, quality, and charge information on Virginia hospitals.”
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