SOUTH PORTLAND — Would you pull into a gas station and fill your tank if you couldn’t know the price of gas? What if the attendant said he didn’t know the price either but recommended you go ahead and fill up, and his company would send you a bill later? Of course not. No consumer would tolerate this behavior in any industry, but in health care it’s the norm.

In these uncertain times of the COVID-19 pandemic, when concerns about needing health care and worries of how to pay for it are top of mind, the need for health care price transparency has never been more urgent.

Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King have a chance to make health care price transparency happen for us and for all Americans. The U.S. Senate recently introduced the Health Care PRICE Transparency Act (S.4106), which would require all hospitals to reveal their cash prices and secret, negotiated rates with insurers in an easy-to-read online format by Jan. 1. This is information that 90 percent of Americans want, but that hospitals and insurance companies have been aggressively fighting because they don’t want to kill their golden goose.

We need them to not only support this bill, but also to join with lawmakers in the effort to include the bill in the next COVID-19 stimulus package and make it the law.

As more Mainers go without insurance or choose high-deductible health plans, they need the ability to shop for health care based on price and quality. Without price transparency, they will continue to be targets for surprise, after-the-fact medical bills in amounts far greater than is reasonable. Knowing how often this happens, many consumers delay seeking necessary medical attention, hoping their problem will just go away. This can lead to patients not getting care until they are in critical condition, or worse. The fear of facing bankruptcy because of outrageous medical bills often motivates consumers to roll the dice. However, if they could know the price of health care ahead of time, they could compare prices, and be in control of their health care dollars, not blindsided by bills they could not see coming.

Besides helping patients find health care at the lowest cost, complete price transparency in health care would also spur competition, which would drive down prices, spur innovation and lead to better quality and access.

Those fighting the price transparency law claim that health care is too complex to respond to the same free-market principles that govern every other market. Notably, these are the same players who profit most from the opaque status quo.

Don’t buy their argument. Today’s technology can synthesize huge amounts of data and put exact real-time prices for airline tickets and automobiles at our fingertips in seconds. The same can happen with health care prices. That’s why a law that would require every hospital, medical office and clinic to post their prices – cash and secret, negotiated rates – in a way that is easy to search and accessible is so needed.

As a direct primary care physician in the Portland area, I strive with my staff to find transparent pricing for our price-conscious patients. It isn’t easy. We know that the price for the same blood test can cost anywhere from $3 to $60, depending on where you go, but most patients don’t find out until it’s too late.

Price transparency would fix that, which is why we need to make S.4106 law. We need to hold our lawmakers accountable to Americans, not to the powerful health care lobby, who are paying lawmakers handsomely to vote otherwise. Health care price transparency is not a red or a blue issue. It’s a widely bipartisan issue. This law would bring tremendous financial empowerment to American households, and would cost taxpayers nothing.

Please urge Sens. Collins and King to vote for the price transparency bill and to move to include it in the next COVID-19 stimulus package. It is what Americans want, need and deserve.

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