NYU Langone concealed treatment costs

New federal regulations mean hospitals must publish previously confidential price lists. But according to a Wall Street Journal investigation, Langone hid price lists from web searches using specialized computer code.

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Sirui Wu

A Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that NYU Langone Medical Center was among hundreds of hospitals to conceal pricing data from search engines. These hospitals are undermining new federal regulations that require U.S. hospitals to provide pricing information online. (Photo by Sirui Wu)

By Saurabh Kumar, Staff Writer

A Wall Street Journal investigation revealed late last month that NYU Langone Medical Center was using specialized computer code to prevent hospital pricing information from appearing in internet search results. The investigation determined that Langone was subverting a federal rule that requires all U.S. hospitals to publish “clear, accessible pricing information online” starting Jan. 1, 2021, for all items and services they provide.

The publication inspected more than 3,100 hospital websites and discovered that hundreds of hospitals, including Langone, had coded their websites to prevent price lists from appearing as search results on search engines such as Google.

“The code keeps pages from appearing in searches, such as those related to a hospital’s name and prices,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “The prices are often accessible other ways, such as through links that can require clicking through multiple layers of pages.”

The new federal regulation requires the disclosure of previously secret pricing information. The regulation was developed and is enforced by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, a federal agency. CMS mandates that pricing data be made available to consumers in both “a comprehensive machine-readable file” and as a “consumer-friendly” display of services.

CMS is committed to ensuring consumers have the information they need to make fully informed decisions regarding their health care,” a CMS spokesperson wrote in an email to WSN.

The goal of the CMS requirement is to make the $1-trillion U.S. hospital industry more friendly and transparent to consumers, according to the Wall Street Journal. It aims to ensure consumers are aware of the price of an item or service before they purchase it and enable consumers to compare prices for expensive procedures.

CMS expects hospitals to comply with these requirements and will enforce these rules to make sure Americans know the cost of their healthcare in advance,” the CMS spokesperson wrote.

Other large healthcare providers, such as those owned by Universal Health Services, HCA Healthcare and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, allegedly used the same code. 

The Wall Street Journal’s investigation comes a year into the ongoing pandemic, which has resulted in large hospitals and medical providers — including NYU Langone — making substantial profits while accepting federal bailouts. Smaller hospitals, meanwhile, have suffered sizable losses. 

An NYU Langone spokesperson denied that the specialized code on their website is an attempt to conceal its treatment costs. 

“Concluding that NYU Langone is making it difficult to find its transparency files is not correct,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to WSN. “The reason for not pushing users to the page [containing price lists] is because it takes you to data without providing any details or context, potentially making it confusing for the user.”

WSN asked what NYU Langone had done to remedy the difficulty caused by the code preventing search engines from returning price lists as search results. According to the spokesperson, the hospital did nothing wrong and therefore has nothing to remedy.

Dr. S. Matthew Liao, director of the NYU Center for Bioethics, highlighted the importance of transparency in the medical industry in an email to WSN.

“Hospital price transparency is important because people have a human right to health care and therefore we need to make sure that health care is affordable to everyone,” Liao wrote in an email to WSN. “By making hospital prices transparent, hospitals can’t mark up the prices of their services since patients are able to compare prices.”

WSN asked NYU Langone whether they plan to comply with the new federal guidelines. 

“We are continuing to work on meeting the new requirements,” the Langone spokesperson wrote. 

According to the CMS spokesperson, CMS has the authority to monitor hospital compliance by evaluating the complaints of individuals or entities, reviewing their analyses of noncompliance and auditing hospitals’ websites. 

According to Tom McGinty, a Wall Street Journal reporter who co-authored the investigation into hospitals hiding pricing data, greater transparency may benefit every party involved.

“You can guarantee that all the insurers who negotiate rates with hospitals are going to be very interested to see what kinds of rates their competitors got,” McGinty said. “I think that everyone from all sides is very frustrated — you know, including the hospitals, including the insurers, including the patients — everybody is very frustrated with the system as it works right now because it’s not a true market in any way.”

Email Saurabh Kumar at [email protected]