New Law Requires All U.S. Hospitals Post Complete Price Lists Online

Requirement Adds to Existing California Law; Makes Price Lists Easier to Find

What to Know

  • All U.S. hospitals must now provide complete price lists on their websites
  • California has required price lists for hospitals since 2006
  • Listed prices are not necessarily final, and patients can negotiate with hospitals to get a reduced bill

A new law now in effect nationwide requires all U.S. hospitals to share complete price lists on their websites.

The rule, created by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, mirrors a 2006 California law that mandated hospitals share price master lists on a state-run website. However, the law now requires hospitals provide that information in a "machine-readable" format, such as a spreadsheet, and do so on their own websites.

Barbara Feder Ostrov, senior correspondent with Kaiser Health News, said the new transparency could benefit patients and taxpayers in the long run.

"It allows policymakers to review the prices that are out there," Feder Ostrov said. "[It lets them] say, 'These are starting prices for negotiations with government and with insurers, and maybe you're starting a little too high. Can you really justify this price?'"

NBC Bay Area checked a number of local hospital websites on Tuesday, and found all in compliance with the new law. However, it did take some clicking and searching to find the price lists, also known as "chargemasters."

The lists can be massive; some hospitals listed more than 40,000 prices for procedures, services, drugs, medical devices, and other items. Prices can vary widely for the same item or procedure from one hospital to the next.

For example, we compared the price of an abdominal MRI with contrast -- a common medical test -- and found these costs listed:

  • Good Samaritan Hospital San Jose - $16,826
  • Stanford Health Care - $9,899
  • Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital - $8,152

NBC Bay Area reached out to all three hospitals on Tuesday about those varying prices. Perhaps because of the New Year's Day holiday, only one responded to us. A Good Samaritan spokesman told us:

“The amount patients actually pay for hospital services has more to do with the type of insurance coverage they have, than amounts on the chargemaster.”

Feder Ostrov with Kaiser Health news said it may be helpful to think of the prices as a research tool and not the firm price you'll definitely pay.

"List prices, chargemaster prices -- like a hotel room rate that you might see posted on the door of a hotel room -- hardly anybody ever pays that list price," she said. "Usually, it's negotiated."

Health insurance providers negotiate prices, and patients can, too. Feder Ostrov says it helps to be informed.

"When you do receive your bill, and your jaw drops, ask for an itemized bill," Feder Ostrov said. "Then, you can try to make sense of your bill, and you can always negotiate."

More advice for patients: Always ask the hospital what out-of-pocket costs will be. Talk with a patient advocate about adjusting the bill, especially if you don't have insurance.

"They really don't want to take you to collections," Feder Ostrov said, "because they're not going to get as much money."