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Tag: Chargemaster

HCA: The Bashful Giant

Screen Shot 2014-09-24 at 1.25.29 PMJudging by its nearly invisible public presence, you’d never know that this is prime time for HCA, the nation’s largest hospital chain.    A former HCA regional VP, Marilyn Tavenner, runs the nation’s Medicare and Medicaid programs.  Former CMS Head and Obama White House health policy chief Nancy Ann DeParle, sits on the HCA Board.  Its longtime investor relations chief, Vic Campbell, is immediate past Chair of the highly effective trade group, the Federation of American Hospitals.  And its Chief Medical Officer, Jonathan Perlin, MD, is Chair Elect of the American Hospital Association.

This astonishing industry leadership presence is something most health systems would be trumpeting, perhaps even placing ads in Modern Healthcare.  But not HCA, the bashful giant of American healthcare.  Most hospital systems make a show of “branding” their hospitals with the company logo.  Yet in its corporate home, Nashville, and the surrounding multi-state region, HCA’s 15 hospital network is called TriStar.  Everyone in Nashville’s tight knit healthcare community knows who owns their hospitals, but you have to read TriStar’s home page closely to find the elliptical acknowledgement of HCA’s ownership.

Despite a nationwide merger and acquisition boom, HCA hasn’t done a major deal in twelve years (Health Midwest in Kansas City joined HCA in 2002).  The company has not participated in the post-reform feeding frenzy, continuing a long-standing and admirable tradition of refusing to overpay for assets. For the moment, owning 160 hospitals is plenty.

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Transparency a Go Go?

As the fashionistas might say, transparency in health care is having a moment. It made the PricewaterhouseCoopers top 10 list for 2014 industry issues, and there is every reason to expect transparency to be very visible this year and beyond.

Without a doubt, transparency is hot.

Despite this, there is increasing grumbling by observers who say that transparency is complicated and hard to operationalize. We also hear that transparency is “not enough” to constrain costs in our dysfunctional system, especially in the face of provider market power.

The word itself invites skepticism, in that it seems to over-simplify and promise a magical solution, as if daylight will provide health care pricing with a glow of rationality.

As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Transparency can and will provide information about price, quality, and consumer experience that market participants need in order to better understand the health care system and increase its value.

While this information is surely necessary, we have seen many examples of when it is not sufficient. Clearly, transparency is not the only tool that we need.

Here are a few thoughts about transparency issues for 2014.

Transparency tools will hit Main Street.

Increasingly, consumer-facing tools with various kinds information about health care prices are being created, whether it is okcopay or Change Healthcare. These entries join a growing list of transparency tools from carriers or third-party vendors.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Hospital Price Transparency challenge, designed to promote awareness of hospital charge data, had a record number of entrant and the winning submissions are downright inspiring. RWJF also awarded grants for research on the use of price data in health care, including a number of studies of promising transparency tools aimed at consumers and providers.

The field is becoming more crowded, and it is increasingly important to determine the optimal way to reach the consumer with price and quality information.

There will be greater focus on the customer experience.

There is no doubt that the customer experience in health care lags behind the rest of the service sector, and consumers are increasingly demanding responsiveness and convenience in their encounters with the medical profession. The growth of evening and weekend hours, email communications with physicians, and patient portals are all harbingers of a new age where medicine is far more customer friendly.

RWJF’s Open Notes initiative allows patients to share notes with their doctors, while the Foundation’s Flip the Clinic program completely reimagines the doctor patient encounter in the ambulatory care setting.

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Can Hospitals be Sued for Excessive Markups on Medications and Devices?

Steven Brill’s TIME MAGAZINE blockbuster article, Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills are Killing Us, uncovers the CHARGEMASTER: a publicly undisclosed pricelist accountable for what we see in hospital bills. What we see there doesn’t look good: it includes acetaminophen sold for $1.50 a tablet (you can buy 100 of those for the same price at Amazon); $77 for a box of sterile gauze pads (Amazon’s prices vary between $6 and $11); $18 for a single diabetes test strip (sold for 54 cents by Amazon); $108 for antibacterial Bacitracin ointment (Amazon’s prices vary between $2.50 and $6.50); and so forth. Charges for stay, scans, surgeries, canes, and wheelchairs skyrocket as well.

The American Hospital Association (AHA) rejects Brill’s analysis. According to AHA, the chargemaster aggregates the hospital’s overall costs on delivering quality care to patients: “In order to take medications in a hospital, even over-the-counter medicines, they must be prescribed by a doctor (a little bit of cost for the doctor), that order gets transmitted to the pharmacy (a little more cost), the order gets filled by a pharmacist or pharmacy tech who retrieves just one Tylenol pill and individually packages that one pill (still more cost), the pill gets transported from the pharmacy to the nursing unit where the patient resides (a little more cost), then the pill is retrieved by a registered nurse who personally gives the pill to the patient and then must document the administration of that pill in the patient medication administration record (a little more cost). All of this process to give a patient a single dose of Tylenol in a hospital bed [must also be] in compliance with all pertaining regulations (a little more cost).”

This post will not try to resolve the Tylenol Debate. Nor will it say anything about the government as a plausible substitute for the eccentric chargemaster. Instead, I will raise a legal question: Can patients sue hospitals for excessive markups on medications and devices?

My answer to this question is a qualified YES.

Entrepreneurial and business aspects of running a hospital fall under states’ consumer protection laws (Brookins v. Mote, 292 P.3d 347 (Mont. 2012)). Those aspects certainly include billing (Jaramillo v. Morris, 750 P.2d 1301, 1304 (Wash. App. 1988); Ambach v. French, 216 P.3d 405 (Wash. 2009)).

The key question here is whether an excessive markup on medications and devices amounts to deceit or an unfair trade practice. If it does, the hospital would be in violation of the relevant state consumer protection law.

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