Although he approved HCA’s purchase of Mission Health in 2018, Attorney General Josh Stein now appears to be having second thoughts about that sale. In a June 2 statement regarding a different hospital merger, he said he had “real concerns” about hospital consolidations, and specifically named HCA and Mission. “Bigger doesn’t always mean better. In fact, it often means worse and more expensive,” Stein said in the statement.
Stein approved the deal that ended more than 130 years of Mission’s legacy of putting quality of care over profits. But now, he said, his office has had more than 100 complaints from patients about quality of care and billing. “Consolidations drive up already inordinate health care costs,” Stein said. He urged hospital administrators, including those at HCA, to be transparent on their pricing.
HCA raised prices 10 percent shortly after taking control of Mission in 2019. As reported in The Wall Street Journal in March, a number of HCA hospitals violated federal price transparency rules that required hospitals to post their prices starting in January 2021. HCA embedded coding in its website to hide prices from consumers trying to understand what their costs might be, The Journal found. After The Journal revealed the blocking links, HCA removed them.
State Treasurer Dale R. Folwell, reacting to the Journal article, criticized Stein in March for not taking action “to protect consumers.”
“I am disappointed by hospitals’ pattern of deceit,” Folwell wrote March 31. “Patients and taxpayers deserve to know what they’re paying for care. We must get rid of secret contracts and push the power down to the consumer. The attorney general needs to be involved.”
It is not the first time Stein has warned HCA about transparency. More than a year ago, the attorney general wrote to Greg Lowe, president of the North Carolina division of HCA Healthcare, to raise concerns including “a surge in complaints about quality of care” and about HCA’s transparency in billing patients.
In his latest letter to hospital administrators, Stein said obfuscation on pricing “layers needless anxiety and uncertainty on top of what are already some of the most stressful circumstances a person can face.” — B.D.