Price transparency conference speakers deliver mixed messages

A conference on price transparency in healthcare had one of the nation's leading hospital executives calling for streamlining billing requirements, while other well-known names in economics and journalism instead criticized practices that they said did little to discourage current hospital practices.

American Hospital Association President Rich Umbdenstock said at the conference, held in Washington, DC earlier this week, that price transparency would lead to lower healthcare costs and improved healthcare delivery. However, Umbdenstock also noted that too many regulatory requirements compelled hospitals to maintain huge billing departments.

"We need to streamline and simplify the system," Umbdenstock said, according to AHA News Now. "You can't keep adding requirements to the system without recognizing the financial impact."

Other notables at the conference were more blunt. Journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill, whose Time magazine article earlier this year shed a light on hospital price opacity, slammed the use of hospital chargemasters, noting that few people understand or can explain what they mean, and organizations often ignore them. "The ultimate symbol of what's broken is the chargemaster," he said. Brill also criticized the Healthcare Financial Management Association for claiming it has worked on the problem for years, but achieving little or nothing in the way of substance.

Princeton University health economist Uwe Reinhardt also slammed chargemasters. He shared one with the audience from a facility owned by Sutter Health, a hospital operator in California, and all but dared the audience to explain what the list of charges meant.

Meanwhile, more reports of hospital overcharging and opacity have surfaced, with recent examples including hospitals charging as much as $500 for a single stitch.

And both Brill and Reinhardt noted that ill patients desperately seeking care would be in a position rendering them unable to make an informed decision about what route to pursue.

"All the transparency in the world couldn't help," Brill noted of one stage four cancer patient he interviewed who was asked for more than $80,000 upfront before treatments began.

To learn more:
- read the AHA News Now article

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