Finding Health Cost, Insurance Data Still a Struggle for Patients

Despite newly enacted federal transparency rules for hospitals and health plans, some large hospitals are still not posting the required price lists for their services, according to a recent report.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ transparency rules were implemented to shine the light on what hospitals charge for their various medical services, the negotiated rates insurers have with health plans and the out-of-pocket costs enrollees can expect to pay for these services.

The rule has taken effect in stages and hospitals were the first required to comply, but the report finds their efforts have fallen short. Insurers were required to start posting negotiated rates for their health plans starting July 1, 2022, but currently much of that information is hard to find and decipher.

That means, for now, it may be difficult for plan enrollees to shop around for procedures that they will pay for partially or fully out of pocket. But hopefully, that should change as more rules take effect.

The non-profit Patients Rights Advocate found a number of omissions when recently analyzing price data for seven hospitals in Florida and Texas that are owned by two major health systems: Ascension Health and HCA Healthcare.

The transparency rule requires hospitals to publish machine-readable price lists and display rates for medical services in a format that allows consumers to comparison shop, meaning they are published online.

Insurers for their part are required to post their negotiated rates with providers in machine-readable format.

The effect on health plan enrollees

Health plan enrollees that want to shop around for medical services may currently find it difficult. While the data is posted on the insurers’ and hospitals’ websites, it’s hard to access and decipher since each entity handles the data differently.

Another report, by National Public Radio, highlighted the hurdles a health plan enrollee may encounter if they were trying to find their insurance carrier’s negotiated price for an MRI:

Locating the files — First they have to find the files, which are unlikely to be posted in an easy-to-find section of the insurer’s website. They may have some luck by searching on Google and typing in their insurer’s name, plus “transparency in coverage” or “machine-readable files.” Maybe.

Finding their plan — If they succeed with that approach, next they need to find their plan in all of those files. The files are supposed to have a table of contents, but insurers can have hundreds, if not thousands of different plans, some specific to just one employer. They’ll have to find their plan among those plans, many of which will have similar names to theirs.

Deciphering the data — If they are able to find their plan and download the information, they will have to decipher the various codes for the service for which they are trying to find a price. Each procedure has a specific service code, which the enrollee may not have.

It may get easier soon

The process may become easier on Jan. 1, 2023, when a new rule that requires insurers to provide apps and other tools to help policyholders estimate costs for visits, tests and procedures takes effect.

At that time, carriers will be required to make available online, or in hard copy upon request, patient costs for a list of 500 common shoppable services. That includes things like knee replacements, mammograms, X-rays and MRIs, to name just a few.

In 2024, insurers must add all remaining shoppable items/services to their comparison tools.

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