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Healthcare Providers Attempt to Evade Price Transparency Regulation

A new federal rule requires hospitals to make their pricing discoverable by consumers. The hospital disclosure of pricing rules took effect at the start of 2021 as part of a push by the Trump administration to 'increase transparency in healthcare pricing.' The purpose is to empower consumers to find better values and inform doctors and employers of where to recommend their patients and employees go for healthcare services. Many hospitals initially complied with the regulation but have since created "embedded code" into their websites that prevents Google and other search engines from finding or displaying their pricing. Chirag Shah, an associate professor who researches human interactions with computers at the University of Washington said, "It's technically there, but, good luck finding it. It's one thing not to optimize your site for searchability, it's another thing to tag it so it can't be searched. It's a clear indication of intentionality."

A Wall Street Journal (WSJ) investigation revealed that some of the biggest health care providers in the country were using a code blocking effort on their websites to keep their pricing from being discovered. Some of the health care companies involved included HCA Healthcare Inc., Universal Health Services, University of Pennsylvania Health Systems, and NYU Langone Health, in addition to regional healthcare providers. A spokesperson for Universal Health stated, 'Universal Health uses the blocking code to ensure consumers acknowledge a disclosure statement before viewing pricing. We are making no efforts to hide any information."

After the inquiries from WSJ investigators, HCA and Penn Medicine, as well as numerous regional firms, removed the search-blocking code. When some hospitals removed the code, in light of being discovered, they indicated it was "a legacy code that we removed." Thomas Harker, a healthcare attorney and former official at the Department of Health and Human Services said, "I would say code blocking violates the spirit of the rule." Hospitals found in violation of posting their pricing data to websites that are easily accessible by consumers face penalties of up to $300 per day.

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