Opinion

Now Is Price Transparency’s Moment

By Richard G. Harris
July 31, 2020 at 5:00 am ET

In recent years Americans have become familiar with the quote, “Never let a good crisis go to waste” — and for the nation’s largest hospital systems, many of which are sitting on billions of dollars of financial reserves, the challenges brought on by the coronavirus are no different. Through active lobbying of Congress and the administration, hospitals have received more than $175 billion in bailouts to date with more requested. But, in an effort to flip the script as hospitals lobby for additional funds, Congress should not let this crisis go to waste: now is the time for the federal government to push its price transparency agenda. 

Let’s be clear: There are many rural, smaller community facilities and hospitals in underserved communities that will need government support to stay afloat. Yet there are many publicly traded hospital companies and large nonprofit systems that have numerous other options other than government bailouts. That money is better left for small businesses and countless independent physician practices whose only choice is to rely on the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan program to keep their doors open. 

As a physician whose practice received PPP support, my partners and I were grateful that the government included independent medicine in the CARES Act. This action — made possible in part by the instrumental efforts of LUGPA, the association representing large urology practices — allowed us to keep our staff from being furloughed for three months as well as allowed for continuity of care. 

As president of LUGPA, I can say the association is also in lockstep with the government that price transparency is critical if we are to ever level the playing field between hospitals and independent practices. If the country is serious about addressing the escalating cost of care, and we want to help patients make informed decisions about their care, it is time that patients have the chance to see the relative costs of health care offered in hospitals versus independent settings. 

My colleagues and I understand the arguments that the prices charged are rarely what the patients pay because they have different insurance plans, co-pays and deductibles, but we must start somewhere. Even helping patients understand costs at the most basic level will help them make better, more informed choices about where and from whom they want to receive care.

The federal court’s decision last month to uphold the Trump administration’s transparency push and reject hospitals’ efforts to keep prices hidden proved that the government has the right to advance transparency. The question is whether they will take advantage of the hospital industry’s need for another bailout to wring concessions on transparency from one of Washington’s most powerful lobbies. 

There are those who will say money, critical to survival of many small, rural and underfunded hospitals, should not be held up during a time of such great national need. However, as we have seen with their failed lawsuit against the administration’s proposal, the hospital lobby will never willingly agree to provide price transparency. If we hope to avoid years of protracted litigation, elected officials must agree to include transparency language in any future bailouts.

What’s more, if getting agreement for such language also requires independent physicians to disclose the cost of care in their offices, then let’s include that language too. My colleagues and I truly believe that benefits that will accrue to our health system from price transparency will far outweigh any negative repercussions. The time is now. Elected officials simply need the will to take advantage of this crisis to advance a long standing and widely supported policy goal. Let’s not let this crisis go to waste.

 

Richard G. Harris, MD, is the president of LUGPA and founding member and CEO of UroPartners in Chicago.

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