'As transparent to me as hieroglyphics': Why patients can't decipher online hospital prices

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CMS' price transparency rule was enacted to help patients compare hospital prices for the same services, but it's nearly impossible for the average person to understand the pricing information hospitals have posted online, according to a July 9 Kaiser Health News report.

The report's author, Bernard Wolfson, details his journey of trying to compare the prices for common services between Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente and Sacramento, Calif.-based Sutter Health. Mr. Wolfson said he quickly found that task to be fruitless, as "the tangled web that long has cloaked hospital pricing" was too confusing to decipher.

"You are a healthcare reporter, I’m a healthcare lobbyist, and the fact that we can’t do this ourselves is an indictment of where things stand at this point," Shawn Gremminger, health policy director at the Purchaser Business Group on Health, told Mr. Wolfson. "The subset of people who can do this is pretty small, and most of them work for hospitals."

When sharing an example of the frustrations he experienced trying to compare hospital prices,  Mr. Wolfson said Sutter’s Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland listed the same outpatient procedure with the same CPT code three times, all with different prices: $1,912, $3,650.85 and $5,475.80. He said confusing listings like this make it "almost impossible for mere mortals to anticipate the total cost of their medical procedures, let alone compare prices among hospitals."

"The prices I examined were as transparent to me as hieroglyphics, and I’m pretty sure that hospital executives — who unsuccessfully sued to stop implementation of the price transparency rule — are not losing any sleep over that fact," Mr. Wolfson said.

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