President Joe Biden has reportedly instructed federal agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to review recent healthcare rules and policies to ensure they “protect and strengthen” the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Biden can bolster the ACA, live up to a commitment made by the Biden-Sanders Task Force, and advance his “unity” agenda by embracing and further strengthening two recent healthcare price transparency rules. Doing so can put the “affordable” back in the Affordable Care Act.

Xavier Becerra, Biden’s nominee to lead HHS, backed healthcare price transparency during his recent confirmation hearings, noting “the American people are entitled to know what they’re buying.”

Hospital price transparency, which took effect at the beginning of this year pursuant to an HHS rule finalized in November 2019, requires hospitals to post their real prices, including their discounted cash and secretly negotiated rates. The order fulfills the Obamacare mandate requiring American hospitals to “establish (and update) and make public” their “standard charges for items and services provided…”

Hospitals had sidestepped this Obamacare requirement by posting their largely meaningless “chargemaster” prices, which are the list rates that virtually nobody pays. Last December, a U.S. appeals court upheld the right of patients to know real prices by striking down a hospital industry appeal of this rule.

Health insurance price transparency, which takes effect in 2022 based on an HHS rule finalized in October 2020, requires insurers to publish their patient-specific cost-sharing information, including for prescription drugs, so that consumers can know precisely what they owe. This rule fulfills Obamacare’s original vision to usher in a functional, competitive healthcare marketplace that empowers consumers with price information and the ability to shop for the best value care and coverage.

No wonder more than 90 percent of Americans support healthcare price transparency, and the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force states, “We will work to increase price transparency in the health care system across all payers…”

Biden’s commitment to price transparency can fix the broken American healthcare system. Armed with real prices, healthcare consumers can finally trust the healthcare system and enjoy financial certainty that a hospital trip won’t end up in financial ruin. All-in, up-front prices allow patients to have immediate recourse if their final bill doesn’t match.

Under the current system, with its Kabuki-theater prices that aren’t known until bills show up weeks and months aftercare, roughly 64 percent of American families, including those with healthcare coverage, avoid treatment each year for fear of obscene costs.

Price information allows patients to shop for the best quality of care and coverage at the lowest possible prices, just like in every other economic sector. When consumers have price signals to avoid price gougers, hospitals and insurers will be forced to lower their rates to keep customers. Knowing prices will also usher in quality improvements as providers differentiate themselves. As a result, competition will improve quality while driving down prices. 

Economic and anecdotal research demonstrate consumers can save around 40 percent on their healthcare costs when paying cash.

A small but growing number of healthcare providers such as Walmart in Georgia are already posting their prices at steep discounts to traditional hospitals. For instance, Walmart has opened several clinics that compete with hospitals by offering affordable, quality care at clear prices posted online. These prices include $40 office visits, $10 X-rays, and $45 mental health counseling sessions. Nearby hospitals can follow their lead. Walmart, Costco, and even some grocery chains can provide broad access and affordable care at known prices.

Biden can achieve his task force and Obamacare 2.0 goals by not only preserving but also doubling-down on these two rules. That means using his bully pulpit to encourage greater hospital adoption and the publication of real prices, not flawed cost estimates that offer patients no protection from wild deviations from the projected price.

He can call on hospitals to stop gaming the system and publish their prices in a way that’s easy for patients to access and understand. And he can encourage tech companies to aggregate hospitals’ rates in easy-to-use apps, allowing consumers to access disparate hospital prices at their fingertips in the same way they access flight prices from different airlines on Kayak or Expedia today.

The fight for healthcare price transparency is a social justice battle to save lives and personal finances. By continuing to champion real prices and reinforcing these transparency rules, Biden can finally grant power to patients and revolutionize American healthcare for generations to come.