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A New Healthcare Rule Designed to Protect Consumers Does Anything But – The Motley Fool



Of life's many expenses, there's probably no more baffling and frustrating than healthcare. After all, when a car breaks down, your mechanic must provide you with a detailed estimate of what it will cost to fix it, including replacement parts and labor. Medical care does not work that way. Often, you will submit a copay and be on your way, only to receive a flurry of bills later on for services not initially specified or covered by your insurance plan.

A new rule, however, is designed to change much of that. Effective Jan. 1, hospitals are now required to list the prices for all of their services, giving patients a clearer notion of what to expect. But while it is a good idea in theory, so far, the rule is only adding to the consumer's confusion without in any way alleviating the cost burden for the patients

 Man in hospital bed talking to doctor standing next to bed

SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES

A smart concept gone awry

The logic behind forcing hospitals to post prices is to empower patients to make decisions about their medical treatment. After all, if a given patient needs a procedure that costs $ 3,000 less at one hospital versus another, he or she could, in theory, opt for the lower-cost alternative

. have been providing is perplexing, inconsistent, and not easily digestible for the average consumer. For example, hospitals will often post prices for individual components of a service or treatment rather than specify what patients' total costs will look like. As such, it may be as difficult as ever for patients to compare shop or get a handle on what they are in for financially.

Furthermore, the prices of hospitals are now required to give out there are not necessarily indicative of what patients actually pay for services. For example, it is not uncommon for hospitals to negotiate different rates with different insurance companies so that what one patient might end up on the hook for will vary from what else is charged

All told, publicizing hospital pricing is likely to do very little in the grand scheme of making healthcare more affordable.

Take control of your health – and the cost of maintaining it

A 2017 study found that an alarming 48% of Americans do not really understand their health benefits. If you are part of that percentage, you risk making poor decisions that leave you with medical bills that cost more than necessary.

For example, sometimes getting a referral or overuthorization is all it takes to turn a whopping medical expense into one your insurance company will cover. Similarly, sticking to in-network providers, both in office and hospital settings, can help keep your out-of-pocket cost way down

In addition, addressing health issues early on can often make them much less costly to manage in the long run. As a simple example, a relentless cough that is treated with antibiotics becomes less expensive when it does not evolve into full-blown pneumonia. In other words, see your doctor or head to an emergency clinic when something does not seem right.

Finally, be sure to always have some savings on hand for when your healthcare bills inevitably cost you more than you've budgeted for. Medical debt is the No. 1 source of personal bankruptcy filings in the country, but if you are able to stay on top of your bills from the beginning, you will be less likely to succumb to that fate

Forcing hospitals to be more transparent about pricing is a good concept in theory, but in practice, it is absolutely falling short. If you really want to save money on medical expenses, understand your benefits, take care of your health, and avoid racking up interest charges on unpaid medical debts by having a little money in the bank to pay for them up front. It's a far better bet than spinning your wheels in a desperate attempt to decode a pricing system that was never meant to be user-friendly in the slightest


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