Hospitals' online prices prove difficult for patients to understand

Although hospitals have started complying with a Trump administration order to post list prices for all their services Jan. 1, patients have found the prices hard to decode and inconsistent, signaling a need for improvements to the data, The New York Times reports.

The rule requires hospitals to publish their standard charges on the internet. They also must present the information in a machine-readable format that can easily be imported into a computer system and update the information at least annually.

But the data is difficult for patients to use since it includes a mix of numbers and technical medical terms and varies across hospitals, the NYT reports.

Nashville, Tenn.-based Vanderbilt University Medical Center, for example, listed a charge of $42,569 for a cardiology procedure described as "HC PTC CLOS PAT DUCT ART."

Baptist Health in Miami listed an "Embolza Protect 5.5" at a cost of $9,818, while a "Visceral selective angio rad"  is listed at $5,538.

Consumers have also struggled to compare prices for the same service at different hospitals since no two hospitals describe services in the same way, and there is no way to determine out-of-pocket costs.

"This is gibberish, totally meaningless, a foreign language to me," said Sara Stovall, 41, of Charlottesville, Va., after reviewing price lists at hospitals near her.

"I can’t imagine how I would go about making this useful," Ms. Stovall said. "I wouldn't know how to find my procedure. I wouldn't know what services might be rolled up with my procedure. And I would not know the price to me after health insurance."

Martin Gaynor, PhD, professor of economics and health policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, described list prices as "somewhat fictitious."

"If this is an initial step leading to real transparency with actionable, usable information, that would be fantastic," Dr. Gaynor said.

But the price information that exists now is "not very useful and could even be misleading" because a hospital with high list prices could be the cheaper alternative for some consumers, depending on their insurance, he added.

Federal health officials said they were surprised at consumers' reaction to the data. The Trump administration said it is open to suggestions for improving the data for 2020 and beyond.

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