Hospitals to start publishing charges

Come January 1, 2019, hospital websites will contain a new feature:  a published list of charges.  This is required under the Affordable Care Act.  Originally, hospitals were not required to publish charges online, but had to make them available to the public on request.  Regulations published in 2018 will now require that all hospital charges be available online.

Great, right?  Everybody knows that the lack of information on how much health care costs makes it more difficult for consumers to compare prices, and can keep costs higher.  That's right, but this is only a small step in the direction of transparency, and won't be very useful to most consumers.

Hospital charges are maintained in a massive database called a chargemaster.  The fact is, practically nobody actually pays these charges.  Insurance companies negotiate prices with hospitals for their members, and government programs pay according to their own rules.  Also, knowing the charge doesn't tell you what the out-of-pocket expense will be, after figuring in your insurance deductible and copayments.  Finally, in many cases the information will not be readily searchable for someone who is not an expert in hospital finance.  Unless you know the CPT codes you're looking for, you're probably out of luck.

For consumers with private health insurance, usually your health plan's website is a better place to start.