We Have Pricing Transparency. Now What? A Communicator’s Guide to the New CMS Law

The first day of 2019 brought with it a change in healthcare communications so novel that, months later, experts have yet to agree on its impact.

That new CMS rule, which requires hospitals to publicly publish a comprehensive, detailed pricing list of all products and services, has the potential to be as beneficial or detrimental to a hospital organization as that organization allows.

It’s not helpful to consumers, some say, because the public information doesn’t reflect what most patients will pay. Others say it’s not perfect, but it’s good because at least it offers the public a starting point for understanding how hospitals charge. And you can bet that people will want to look, and likely ask questions about, your hospital’s newly public chargemaster.

Though there’s not yet a fine for failing to publish a pricing list, it’s up to each hospital to comply with this new governmental regulation. Moreover, it’s worth the healthcare communicator’s time to embrace and leverage the potential benefits of this rule – as well as to educate inquirers and even defend against criticism. After all, 92 percent of providers “are somewhat or very concerned about the public perception of their prices.”

Read on for tips on how to best communicate about your hospital’s pricing transparency.

1. Be a Resource

In times of uncertainty, people are looking for answers.

Why is one ibuprofen dose at the hospital listed for $143, when I can buy a whole bottle of Advil (ibuprofen) at the pharmacy for $8? And, why does a routine colonoscopy cost $1,700 at one hospital and $2,500 at a similar hospital 10 miles away?

When patients have information without full context or knowledge of the payment process, they will ask more questions.

A hospital may choose to bury the pricing list on its website, but leaders should not simply hide their heads in the sand about this issue. With the right proactive and reactive messages in place, a hospital can emerge from this confusion as a resource for weary patients and inquisitive reporters.

Help patients. Provide answers to their questions. Educate them beyond the CMS rule; advise about how to make decisions about shopping for care, insurance plans, HSAs, FSAs and other healthcare-related financial choices.

Use this new law as an opening to communicate your hospital’s mission and key messages. When patients see that your organization isn’t hiding, you’re more likely to earn their trust and loyalty.

2. Embrace the Advantage

This new rule is intended, in part, to push hospitals along the road of consumer choice. The government is betting on the open-market competition of capitalism – that given more data to make (theoretically) more informed choices, consumers will patronize the hospitals that offer the best care at the lowest cost.

So, if possible, capitalize on your hospital’s pricing as a competitive advantage.

Does a slightly less conveniently located hospital charge less to fix a broken leg than one nearby?  Does physical therapy with your hospital lead to better patient outcomes than the same therapy with a competitor, even though your listed prices are similar?

Supplemented with the right educational materials from your hospital, you can equip patients with the right knowledge to opt for care at your organization over a competitor.

3. Accept that Questions Will Arise

The best defense is a good offense. If you’re caught unprepared when patients – and reporters – ask why a foot cast at your hospital costs twice as much as it does at the hospital across town, you’ll start the conversation defensively, no matter how valid your reasons and messages.

Be ready. Understand precisely what the CMS rule requires of your hospital. Draft a list of anticipated questions and answers, from the perspective of both consumers and journalists, and get them approved from hospital executives. Designate and prepare a spokesperson to manage media questions. If appropriate, retain a PR agency with experience in healthcare and crisis management.

Do this now, before people come a-knocking. You’ll be grateful that you’re not learning on the job how to manage this crisis.

The better prepared your hospital is to be a resource to the community and to media, the better your relationship with your patients will be. So don’t shy away from this new regulation. Own it, and you’ll develop a reputation as a true partner in health.

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