HHS Secretary: We need to drive 'broader change' in health price transparency

HHS Secretary Alex Azar spoke at the World Health Care Congress on Wednesday. (Paige Minemyer)

When HHS Secretary Alex Azar had a routine echocardiogram turn into a hospital admission several years ago, it became a firsthand lesson in how hard it is to get accurate pricing data. 

At the time, he'd pressed for details on the cost of the admission of the test but was stonewalled and then was given multiple different figures, all much higher than if his physician had simply performed the echocardiogram, Azar said. 

"Now there I was, a former deputy secretary of Health and Human Services, and this is the kind of effort it took to find out how much I owe for a procedure," he told the annual gathering of the World Health Care Congress during their annual meeting in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

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"What if I had been a busy parent who had never worked in healthcare, who just trusted the system? Or a 20-something with a high-deductible plan?" Azar said.

RELATED: HHS Secretary Azar outlines 4-point plan to accelerate shift toward a value-based system 

With limited progress in the years since his own experience, Azar said it is time for HHS to ramp up efforts to expand price transparency in healthcare. "HHS can play a role in driving broader change," Azar said. "And in many cases, such is the scale of our programs, if we’re not serving as an innovator, we may be standing in the way," Azar said.

Alex Azar
Alex Azar (Wwsgconnect)

 The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has already taken steps to address this, he said, by pushing hospitals to post prices online in its annual Medicare payment update rule.

HHS has also posted a request for information from healthcare industry experts on additional ways to increase transparency around prices, Azar said.

RELATED: Price transparency cuts healthcare costs—even when consumers don't benefit 

That focus on price transparency also extends to pushing industry to address drug prices, Azar said. Lowering the cost of drugs is a key goal under the Trump administration, which has unveiled plans to address costs such as pushing pharmacy benefit managers to share rebates directly with patients. 

"Action is desperately needed: There is little difference between a miracle cure that hasn't been discovered and one that is too expensive to use," Azar said. "I believe we can help lower the cost of medicine while still promoting research that will transform the future of care."