Could “price secrecy” in health care soon be a thing of the past?

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Imagine you’re walking up and down the aisle at your grocery store only to find that all the price stickers have been blacked out with a permanent marker. You wave down an employee and ask them how much the cereal costs.

“I’m not sure,” they respond with a shrug. “But we’ll send you a bill in the mail at the end of the month.”

You probably can’t imagine shopping at the grocery store or anywhere without prices, yet “price secrecy” is how business is done in our health care industry. It’s no wonder why customers are “sticker shocked” when the bill comes. 

Have you ever gone to the hospital and received a jaw-dropping bill in the mail weeks later? If so, you may remember the bill like this:

Quick in-and-out emergency room visit, even with good insurance:$1,500.

An evaluation from a doctor you don’t even remember seeing: That’ll be $900.

A bandage, some Advil, and a facility fee: Another $600, please.

After the initial shock wore off, maybe you spent hours back and forth on the phone with your insurance and medical providers, attempting to decode the bill’s line items and figure out who is responsible for paying for what. After all, the burden falls on the patient to confirm that the prices are even correct. Maybe you didn’t even realize you were “buying” so many services at the time of treatment. In the end, you are left paying much more than you should have or ever thought you would.

In no other industry would we tolerate secret prices, so why should we with health care?

Fixing the price problem is urgent, now more than ever in the wake of a worldwide pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic serves as an unwelcome reminder of the barriers, like this one, that stand in the way of quality, affordable health coverage and increased consumer choice. A COVID survivor should not have to face a second struggle with unexpected medical bills, especially at the same time many Americans have lost their jobs or have limited hours. Congress can no longer ignore that price secrecy hurts patients, employers and hurts our future economic recovery. 

The Trump administration, in an attempt to provide peace of mind and transparency to patients, announced two rules in 2019 that require most health care providers to disclose their prices. Hospitals shockingly responded by suing to keep their customers in the dark. The fight isn’t finished. To move this issue forward during the ongoing court battles, the Senate introduced the Health Care PRICE Transparency Act in June. The law would codify the Trump administration’s rules, and if passed, providers would be required by law to post their rates. Price transparency would increase competition in health care markets and eventually lower prices for patients leaving them more money for family bills, and allow small companies to hire an additional worker. We deserve a better health system, one that quotes its prices in advance and allows customers to shop around for the best option. 90 percent of Americans agree. Soon, that wish may become a reality.