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Almost nothing is less transparent than hospital pricing. If you’re shopping for a procedure, you probably won’t hear about the negotiated prices worked out with large insurers…. you’re likely to be quoted something much higher. A high price is billed to an insurer, but the excess above their negotiated prices is “disallowed” via contractual adjustment. You and/or your small insurer might not get the same deal. As Robert Laszewski says:

The chargemaster is complete nonsense that really doesn’t matter — unless you are an uninsured person and you’re getting these huge bills driving you toward bankruptcy. The biggest irony of the U.S. healthcare system is that only the uninsured — often people who don’t have a lot of money — are the only ones the hospital expects to pay these incredibly inflated prices!”

An uninsured patient might be billed at the higher rate, but of course few end up paying. But there is harm in this arrangement, and it extends well beyond the uninsured. You might not be surprised to learn that the government is right in the middle of it. Read on…

What a Racket!

There’s some slight of hand going on in hospital pricing that creates perverse incentives. Who has something to gain from a huge gap between the full price and the hospital’s allowable charge? The answer is both the hospital and insurers, and that’s true whether the hospital is for-profit or nonprofit. When the list price and the size of the discount increase, the insurer gets to brag to employer-plan sponsors about the great savings it negotiates. In an episode on EconTalk, Dr. Keith Smith, a partner in the ultra-competitive and cash-only Surgery Center of Oklahoma, says (only partly in jest) that the conversation between the insurer and hospital might go something like this:

Now, what the insurers actually do is ask the hospital administrators, ‘Can you do a brother a favor and actually charge $200,000 for that, so that our percentage savings actually looks larger?‘”

This does two things for the insurer: it impresses employers as prospective plan sponsors, and it might also earn the insurer a bonus known as Claims Repricing, whereby the employer pays a commission on the discounts the insurer “negotiates”.

What about the hospitals? How do they benefit from this kind of arrangement? By inflating the “list price” of procedures, the hospital creates the appearance of a write-down or loss on a substantial share of the care it provides, despite the fact that its real costs are far below list prices and usually below the discounted “allowable amounts” negotiated with insurers as well. The appearance of loss serves to benefit the hospitals because they are compensated by the government on that basis through so-called Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) payments. These are, ostensibly, reimbursements for so-called uncompensated care.

This would not be such a travesty if the prices approximated real costs, but they don’t, and the arrangement creates incentives to inflate. The DSH payments to hospitals are used in a variety of ways, as Smith notes:

Yeah; and before we get to feeling too sorry for the hospitals, all of the ones I know of claiming to go broke have a crane in front of them building onto their Emergency Room. …

So, I don’t know: again, the hospitals that are complaining about this, they are buying out physician practices, they’re buying out competitors. They seem to have a whole lot of money. They’re not suffering. Now, what they have done is used the situation you described–the legitimate non-payer–they’ve used that as a propaganda tool, I would argue, to develop a justification for cost shifting where they charge us all a whole lot more to make up for all the money that they’re losing. But they really need a lot of this red ink to maintain the fiction of their not-for-profit status.”

Non-profit hospitals are also entirely tax-exempt (income and property taxes), despite the fact that many use their “free cash flows” in ways similar to for-profit hospitals. The following describes a 2015 court ruling in New Jersey:

The judge stated ‘If it is true that all non-profit hospitals operate like the hospital in this case… then for purposes of the property tax exemption, modern non-profit hospitals are essentially legal fictions.’ Judge Bianco found that the hospital ‘operated and used the property for a profit-making purpose’ by, in part, providing substantial loans, capital, and subsidies to for-profit entities, including physician groups.

The bad incentives go beyond all this. Smith adds the following:

Waste in a big hospital system is actually encouraged, many times because hospitals are paid based on what they use…. So, to the extent that the hospital uses a lot of supplies, that typically raises and increases the amount of revenue that they receive.”

Hospitals have been shielded from competition for years by the government. As Chris Pope explains, hospital pricing is designed “to accommodate rather than to constrain the growth of hospital costs“. This encourages hospitals that are inefficient in terms of costs, quality of care, and over-investment in equipment. Conversely, duplicated facilities and equipment simply add costs and don’t encourage competition given the cost-plus nature of hospital pricing and government efforts to prevent entry by more efficient operators. These restrictions include “Certificates of Need” for new entrants, and the ban on physician-owned hospitals in the Affordable Care Act (ACA). At the same time, the ACA encouraged hospital consolidation by rewarding the formation of so-called Accountable Care Organizations, which are basically exempt from anti-trust review. In the end, any reductions in administrative costs that consolidation might offer are swamped by the anti-consumer force of monopoly power.

Mandated Transparency?

The lack of price transparency really isn’t the root problem, in my view, but it is undesirable. Can government action to create transparency foster a more competitive market for the services hospitals offer? A recent Trump Administration Executive Order would require that hospitals publicly post prices for 300 “shoppable” services or procedures. The effective date of this order was recently delayed by a year, to January 2021. Hospital trade groups have challenged the order in court on the grounds that the First Amendment protects private businesses from being compelled to reveal details of privately-negotiated deals for complex services. While I try to be a faithful defender of constitutional rights, I find this defense rather cynicical. I’m not sure the First Amendment was intended to aid in concealing dishonest schemes for private benefit at the expense of taxpayers and consumers.

Avik Roy likes the price transparency rule. It would require the posting of gross charges for procedures as well as specific negotiated prices. The executive order would also require Medicare to pay no more to hospital-owned clinics than to independent clinics for the same procedure, which is laudable. Roy is sanguine about the ability of these rules to bring more competition to the market. He predicts a more level playing field for small insurers in negotiating discounts, and he thinks the order would spur development of on-line tools to assist consumers.

John C. Goodman is mildly skeptical of the benefits of a transparency mandate (also see here). Consumers with decent levels of coverage aren’t terribly motivated to make hospital price comparisons, especially if it means a delay in treatment. Also, Goodman points out a few ways in which hospitals try to “game” transparency requirements that already exist. John Cochrane worries about gaming of the rules as well. Competition and price discipline are better prescriptions for price transparency and might be better addressed by eliminating the incentives for third-party payment arrangements, like the unbalanced tax deductibility of health insurance premiums, but that kind of reform isn’t on the horizon. Goodman concedes that many procedures are “shoppable”, and he does not minimize the extent to which pricing varies within local hospital markets.

Conclusion

The most insane thing about hospital revenue generation is its reliance on fictitious losses. And hospitals, profit and non-profit, have a tendency to spend excess cash in ways that fuel additional growth in cost and prices. Sadly, beyond their opacity, hospital prices do not reflect the true value of the resources used by those institutions.

In my view, the value of price transparency does not hinge on whether the average health care consumer is sensitive to hospital prices, but on whether the marginal consumer is sensitive. That includes those willing to pay for services out-of-pocket, such as those who seek care at the Surgery Center of Oklahoma. Third-party payers lacking significant market power would undoubtedly prefer to have more information on pricing as well. Mandated price transparency won’t fix all of the dysfunctions in the delivery and payment for health care. That would require more substantial free-market reforms to the insurance and health care industries, which ideally would involve replacing price subsidies with direct payments to the uninsured. The transparency mandate itself might or might not intrude on domains over which privacy is protected by the Constitution, a question that has already been brought before the courts. Nonetheless, transparency would lead to better market information for all participants, which might help rationalize pricing and encourage competitive forces.