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Healthcare Transparency: Pandemic cool down turns up regulatory heat

June 7, 2021 by Experian Health

The pandemic dominated healthcare in 2020, but it won’t be recognized as a reason to delay complying with CMS’ price transparency mandate, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 2021. A recent study conducted by HealthAffairs indicated that 65 of the 100 largest hospitals in America had not complied as of February 2021. And new reports from CMS suggest $300 daily fines will follow if CMS warning letters have no impact, in addition to the possible public exposure of facilities failing to be compliant.

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There are a number of reasons why price transparency has generated so much attention – both before and during the COVID pandemic. Consumer advocates point to other transactional experiences, such as auto and home purchases, where understanding the price is complicated, but achieved. There’s been a lot of research on price transparency’s impact on patients, as well; helping consumers understand healthcare billing reduces the stress of their financial experiences. Transparent pricing makes sense in many cases for providers, too. They may benefit from patients being able to plan for the costs of care, which can result in fewer missed payments and write-offs.

For these reasons and others, price transparency has been a hot topic for the last few years. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) final rule on price transparency became effective on January 1, 2021, requiring hospitals to give patients clear information about their medical costs, including a list of charges for the hospital’s 300 most shoppable services, so patients can make informed decisions. Payers are expected to provide similar pricing information beginning January 1, 2022.

The spotlight on healthcare pricing seems unlikely to dim any time soon. What does this mean for providers and payers?

Price transparency is here to stay

There were legal challenges made against the price transparency final rule, questioning federal authority and invoking constitutional rights violations, but the DC Circuit Court dismissed the claims in December 2020.

Arguments against the current mandate are not limited to disputing legal authority, suggesting that government should not interfere with private sector pricing – and that complex pricing information could create the opposite effect of confusing consumers. In fact, many providers and payers voice support for price transparency, but not as put forward by the final rule. Despite this, consumer demand for pricing clarity before delivery of services continues to grow and current government regulation is the most far-reaching attempt so far to remedy this. A few state legislatures are moving forward with their own regulations, which could prompt more local collaborations between providers and payers to clarify out-of-pocket cost estimates. Achieving the level of transparency that CMS and consumer groups hope for will be challenging, but attempts to find common ground are growing.

What will price transparency look like under the Biden Administration?

Since President Biden entered the White House, the trend towards transparent pricing has continued. Provider compliance has been slow – many pointing to 12 months of battling COVID as the primary reason – prompting legislative pressure to step up audits and penalties. CMS has already started issuing noncompliance warning letters and, while it may modify the ruling under a new administration, there’s no sign of any plans to reverse the policy.

Consumer action groups have voiced concerns that the regulation falls short, citing the difficulty a consumer may have trying to find pricing at provider web sites. Other consumers are limited to payer-negotiated rates and have little choice but to stick with their current providers. Making information available is likely an early step toward what price transparency will ultimately look like, but making that information easy to find, understand and act on is what consumers value – and what many providers and payers say they want to provide in a more customized, less one-size-fits-all application.

A marketing strategy for price transparency

As patients bear more responsibility for healthcare costs, they’ve come to expect a consumer experience that affords them greater control and choice. A Pioneer Institute study found that 70% of healthcare consumers want to see pricing information before undergoing a medical procedure. Actively communicating a commitment to price transparency can be a powerful marketing strategy to attract and retain loyal consumers.

Not surprisingly, this messaging resonates more with user-friendly tools to guide patients through their financial journey and make sense of charges. Many providers believe they’re complying with the final rule but may actually be vulnerable to penalties because their pricing files are in user-unfriendly formats.

A web-based pricing tool can help solve for this by offering patients accurate estimates and recommended payment plans before or at the point of service. Similarly, a text-to-mobile tool, such as Patient Financial Advisor, can send automated text messages to patients with personalized estimates and bills.

Keeping an eye on healthcare price transparency

More tools are now available to help patients make sense of their billing and it’s becoming easier for providers and payers to create a patient financial experience that’s supportive from the start. Not only will this help patients understand their cost of care (and with that understanding likely comes better collections performance), it’ll help reduce the risk of uncompensated care ¬– and avoid penalties as the final rule takes root.

The Biden Administration’s focus on consumer-friendly healthcare services will likely keep price transparency at the forefront. What that looks like over the next few years depends on regulatory and market forces, but providers and payers alike will benefit from offering solutions that make sense for their organizations and patient populations.

Find out how Experian Health’s price transparency tools could help your organization with the transition.

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