(Raleigh, N.C.) – State Treasurer Dale R. Folwell, CPA, said today that hospitals in the state are not complying with 2019 federal price transparency rules that required hospitals to post their prices starting in January 2021. The rule is aimed at protecting consumers from surprise billing and driving down costs, but hospitals are fighting price transparency on every level.
His statement comes as a Wall Street Journal investigation finds that hundreds of hospitals are “undermining [the] federal transparency rule” by blocking patients’ access to price information using special coding to cripple web searches. The investigative report specifically identified Winston-Salem-based Novant Health as engaging in this practice. Novant told reporters it was blocking patients’ access in order to direct them to information that the hospital administrators considered more useful.
The American Hospital Association (AHA) echoed this sentiment in its lawsuit to keep hospital prices secret. The AHA publicly declared that prices weren’t “useful” to patients and that price transparency "does nothing to help patients understand what they will actually pay for treatment and will create widespread confusion for them.”
Patients and taxpayers might disagree if they knew that the price of a cesarean section at one hospital can range from $6,241 to $60,584 — depending not on the complications of surgery but on what insurance a pregnant woman has.
“Secret contracts and hidden prices are killing the American Dream,” said Treasurer Folwell. “Right now, a starting teacher or trooper has to work five days out of every month just to afford the family premium for health care. The only way that we can make health care affordable is to eliminate secret contracts and to push the power away from big hospitals to the consumer.”
In fact, a full 72% of Americans say medical bills have stunted their economic potential, including their ability to have children and buy a home, reported Becker’s Hospital Review. Another 90% of Americans supported price transparency in multiple polls.
The Treasurer and the State Health Plan (SHP) are supporting legislation to bring transparency to SHP’s real costs of providing health care. Under current law, the SHP cannot access its own data or audit how taxpayer dollars are spent without permission from its third-party vendor — Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina.
State Health Plan Data Transparency House Bill 169 would level an unfair playing field and help the state to protect patients and taxpayers.
“What do North Carolina’s state employees and taxpayers pay? We don’t know,” said Treasurer Folwell. “The state hospital won’t tell the state treasurer what it’s charging to treat state employees. That’s unacceptable. We need access to our own data.”
As far back as 2011, State Auditor Beth Wood warned that “[t]he Plan is at risk for overpaying medical claims” because it doesn’t have access to its own data. But when the treasurer tried to find out what health care was costing those that teach, protect and serve, UNC Health sent 200 pages of blacked-out, redacted prices. Then it gave thousands of taxpayer dollars to a dark money political group attacking price transparency.
Treasurer Folwell is calling on N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein to take action to protect consumers. Stein approved the HCA takeover of Mission Health in 2019, after which patient safety declined and fees jumped. Stein controls the state’s Consumer Protection Division and he holds a unique authority to help patients.
“I am disappointed by hospitals’ pattern of deceit,” said Treasurer Folwell. “Patients and taxpayers deserve to know what they’re paying for care. We must get rid of secret contracts and push the power down to the consumer. The attorney general needs to be involved.”
The SHP, a division of the N.C. Department of State Treasurer, provides health care coverage to nearly 750,000 teachers, current and former lawmakers, state university and community college personnel, active and retired state employees and their dependents. For more information, visit the SHP website.