Health Care Price Transparency Continues To Be A Conversation For House Committee

While other issues and controversies have overshadowed health care policy news in recent months, there has been some activity in this area, as federal lawmakers are considering moves to address price transparency and health care costs.

A recent hearing at the U.S. House of Representative Health Subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee on Jan. 31 heard testimony from a range of shareholders and policy experts on costs and price transparency in health care. Many of the speakers voiced support for the recent “Lower Costs, More Transparency Act,” which passed the House in late 2023 and is pending in the Senate.

“The Health subcommittee is tasked with one of the most important jobs in Congress—overseeing nearly one-fifth of the United States economy,” said chair Bret Guthrie (R-KY) at the hearing. “It’s a huge task and demands serious, bipartisan solutions to some of the most pressing challenges—challenges that have a large impact and are deeply personal for patients and families. That is why today we are continuing the bipartisan work we did in 2023 to bring down the high costs of health care.” 

Commercial insurers pay higher prices for health care than Medicare programs

The subcommittee heard testimony from Chapin White, director of health analysis for the Congressional Budget Office on health care subsidies and the difference between costs for Medicare fee-for-service (FFS) plans and what commercial insurers pay for health care services.

“The average prices that commercial insurers pay for hospital and physicians’ services have historically been higher than the prices paid by the Medicare FFS program,” White said. “Those higher prices result from several factors. Primary among them are the market power of providers and the limited sensitivity of consumers and employers to the prices that insurers pay providers. Limited price sensitivity on the part of insurers also contributes to high prices, but it mainly results from price insensitivity among consumers and employers.”

White also noted that subsidies from the federal government for health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) are rising faster than costs under Medicare and Medicaid, due to the ACA plans being more subject to changes in the commercial market.

“Average subsidies grow at different rates for different sources of insurance coverage,” he said. “Part of the reason is that the prices that commercial health insurers pay providers tend to rise faster than the prices paid by government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, whose prices are generally set administratively. CBO estimated that between 2013 and 2018, the prices paid by commercial insurers with employment-based or nongroup plans grew by an average of 2.7% a year, whereas the prices paid by the Medicare fee-for-service (FFS) program grew by an average of 1.3% a year.”

Transparency helps, but how much?

Price transparency was discussed as a way to hold down costs, but White indicated the CBO viewed transparency as important but not a quick fix for costs. Even comprehensive transparency reform would only bring a small amount of price reductions. Capping prices would be more effective in cost containment, he added.

“In CBO’s assessment, a comprehensive set of policies that promoted price transparency would lead to very small price reductions (between 0.1% and 1%), and a comprehensive set of policies that promoted competition among providers would lead to small price reductions (more than 1% to 3%),” White testified. “Moderate to large price reductions (3% to 5% or more) would be possible under policies that capped the level or growth of prices paid to providers.”

Sophia Tripoli, MPH, senior director of health policy for Families USA, praised the “Lower Costs, More Transparency Act” as a good first step towards addressing rising health care costs, but told the committee further steps were needed. These could include limiting mergers and acquisitions of health systems and hospitals, and more emphasis on site neutral payments, which would pay providers the same for a service regardless of where it was performed. The bill being considered has some site-neutral provisions for specific outpatient drug services, but Tripoli said the policy should be expanded.

“The CBO estimates that this policy could save Medicare approximately $140 billion over the next decade,” she said. “And the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget projects that these polices could reduce health care spending by $153 billion over the next decade.”

White, who noted that the CBO does not advocate for any specific policy, said that site-neutral payments could have some positive effects. “The site neutral policy that’s in [this act] is pretty narrow, but a more expansive version could have some dampening of the incentives to consolidate,” he said.


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