(The Center Square) – North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein's office said it is keeping an eye on the state's hospitals that have been accused of disobeying federal price transparency rules.
State Treasurer Dale Folwell called on the attorney general last week to take action against North Carolina hospitals undermining the rules. Representatives for Stein's office said Tuesday they have "been looking closely at this issue and will continue to do so."
Hospitals were required as of Jan. 1 to fully disclose prices for services online, unveiling negotiated rates between hospitals and insurers. The rule was implemented by former President Trump's administration and was meant to help Americans compare medical service costs before seeking treatment.
A Wall Street Journal examination of more than 3,100 sites found hundreds of hospitals, including Winston-Salem’s Novant Health, are using embedded codes to block access to their pricing lists. Folwell also said Asheville’s Mission Health has also buried its full price on its website.
“I am disappointed by hospitals’ pattern of deceit,” Folwell said. “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.”
According to the federal rule, hospitals’ files need to be digital and should include the gross charge, discount cash price, negotiated charges, minimum and maximum charges, item and service descriptions and codes.
Stein oversees North Carolina’s Consumer Protection Division, and Folwell said that makes gives Stein “a unique authority to help patients.”
Representatives for Novant Health said they "take compliance with these federal regulations seriously" and have launched a more user friendly online price estimator tool in addition to posting the price list.
"The charge list does not take into account an individual’s insurance coverage or other factors that may impact the cost of their care, like where they are during their plan year, whether or not they’ve met their deductible, and what their out-of-pocket maximum is," Novant spokesperson Megan Rivers said in a statement. "The complete charge list is essentially a large excel spreadsheet that’s extremely cumbersome and difficult to search if you do not have knowledge of specific insurance coding or negotiated payor rates."
The American Hospital Association sued to block the rule, arguing it overreaches and violated the First Amendment. The U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the policy in December. Hospitals that do not comply could be subject to a fine of $300 a day.
“Secret contracts and hidden prices are killing the American Dream,” Folwell said. “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.”
Mission Health did not respond to requests for comment.