Hospital Charges And The Need For A Maximum Price Obligation Rule For Emergency Department & Out-Of-Network Care
May 16th, 2013
The release of average charges for common procedures in more than 3,000 U. S. hospitals last week by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) elicited divergent reactions – not surprisingly. On one hand, it was front-page news for most of the major newspapers: “Hospital Billing Varies Wildly, Government Billing Data Shows,” was the headline in the New York Times. The article went on to speculate that these new data would likely “intensify a long debate over the methods that hospitals use to determine their charges.”
On the other hand the data were “old hat” to most health policy analysts. Several colleagues mentioned to me that “this is old news” and “it isn’t meaningful at all because we all know that charges don’t mean anything.”
“No one pays charges” is the common refrain. “Charges are merely an accounting fiction.”
Charges Do Matter — They Matter A Great Deal
Counter to the belief of both hospital industry representatives and many of my colleagues, hospital charge levels and rapidly escalating charges matter a great deal. While individual states and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) have instituted limits on the amounts low-income uninsured patients pay hospitals, insured patients that receive care at hospitals that are “Non-Par” or “out-of-network” are still victims of hospital’s exorbitant charging practices. When patients receive emergency services at an out-of-network hospital, the patient and/or insurance company (depending on insurer cost sharing for out-of-network care) pay full charges.
High and increasing hospital charges, combined with increasing proportions of cases admitted through the hospital Emergency Department (ED), are major factors behind the ever-declining negotiating leverage of private health insurers. This situation, coupled with the increased pricing power of the ever-more-concentrated provider industry, will be a major contributor to the almost certain rapid escalation in total U.S. health care costs in coming years.Read the rest of this entry »