Why doctors need to care about price transparency

As healthcare costs become a bigger and bigger chuck of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP), price transparency is a subject that insurance companies and patients are talking about. The idea of knowing how much something costs, be it canned black beans in the grocery store or replacing the leaking faucet in your kitchen, seems obvious but it will be an uphill battle to enact change within the healthcare system.

The concept seems simple–make prices accessible to the people who are paying them just like in any other service industry. While healthcare is more complex than a plumbing job, there are still some things that should be easy to price–cataract extraction, blood pressure check, yearly physical, uncomplicated appendectomy. The hidden prices and unknowns in medicine can quickly add up. It is no wonder that  patients are angry, frustrated and incredulous.

Case in point, my mother called yesterday to ask why she was not told that going to a cardiologist in our system for a test was “outpatient treatment” in a hospital. She had no idea that was the case until the  EOB (Explanation of Benefits) came from her insurance company with a charge specifically associated with that. The answer is that the cardiologists are employees of the hospital so there is an additional fee tacked on to her bill.

Even though her visit appeared to be in a doctor’s office, it is now an extension of the hospital. As such they tack on a “facility fee” that, while technically allowable, I find distasteful and misleading, even as it is done by my own healthcare system. Talk about a lack of transparency! My mother had no clue and at 84, even if someone did explain it to her, I doubt she understood what they were talking about. Not until she got the EOB from her insurance company did she start to question.

A patient with congenital heart disease told me this week she was putting off getting an imaging study on her heart because she can’t afford the $1000 hospital fee that her now-hospital-employed physician would be adding to her bill. One thousand EXTRA billed dollars solely for that reason? How do hospitals justify this? They state that patients are paying for the “added services” that being a hospital-associated facility affords them, like infection control and patient safety. I doubt anyone thinks paying four times what the doctor charges for a facility fee is justified by patient safety.

It’s encouraging to see patients becoming more involved in this process–pushing for price transparency. Doctors are also beginning to understand that we can no longer hold ourselves above the fray, believing that caring for the patient in the best manner possible without knowing the economic burden that care incurs to the patient or family is not our concern. Best care does include knowing costs. In the meantime, my patient who needs the echocardiogram waits, and hopes for the best.

Kathy Nieder is a family physician who blogs at Family Practice 2.0.

View 13 Comments >

Most Popular