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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Federal proposals that would require hospitals and health plans to publish their secretly negotiated prices may not do much to change individual behaviors, but companies that offer health insurance to employees could use that information to bargain for better rates and lower their health care expenses.

Where it stands: Employer groups are divided over the proposals, despite the potential upside.

The big picture: Revealing prices would allow employers to see which hospitals and doctors are ripping them off and which insurers are obtaining good discounts.

  • Employers then could use the data to drive better bargains for some hospital services, and savings hypothetically could be passed along to workers in the form of higher wages and other benefits.

Yes, but: There are concerns about whether airing prices would paradoxically raise them. And in markets where either providers or insurers are highly consolidated, those entities would still hold all negotiating power.

  • "Price transparency alone is not going to change all that much if we don't change the way we purchase health care," said Kate Baicker, a health economist at the University of Chicago.

What they're saying: Many companies have already endorsed proposals, pending in Congress, to analyze medical claims through a national database.

  • The Society of Professional Benefit Administrators, which represents the third parties that help employers process insurance claims, has suggested that hospitals should have to report certain pricing data.
  • James Gelfund, a vice president at ERIC, a lobbying group that focuses on benefits for large employers, compared the issue to a Gordian knot: "Employers have whipped out their swords and are ready to chop that sucker in half ... so long as everything is secret and proprietary, we're never going to solve anything."

Those views contrast starkly with other major lobbying groups that represent large employers.

  • The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in September that price transparency proposals were a government overreach and would confuse people. Some of the Chamber's most influential members are health care companies.
  • The American Benefits Council and National Business Group on Health similarly have not endorsed mandatory price disclosures.
  • Consumers First, a coalition of employer and consumer groups, said it doesn't mind unlocking negotiated rates — as long as the rates are only viewable for "payers, providers and policymakers."

Between the lines: The health care industry hates price transparency because it would open their black box, and some employer groups have decided to protect those interests.

Go deeper

Updated 41 mins ago - Energy & Environment

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Satellite imagery of the Northeastern U.S. taken by NOAA on Jan. 17. Photo: NOAA

A major winter storm lashed much of the East Coast Sunday and Monday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The latest: Authorities in North Carolina confirmed that two people died in a car crash and that they responded 600 vehicle accidents during the storm on Sunday, per the Washington Post.

CDC director says COVID-19 messaging should have been clearer

Rochelle Walensky. Photo: Stefani Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that the messaging around the COVID-19 pandemic and changing guidance should have been clearer.

State of play: Walensky is being coached by media experts and is planning to have more press briefings by herself in order to ensure that CDC is seen as an independent, scientific entity, rather than as a political one, the Journal reports.

2 hours ago - World

UAE asks U.S. to reinstate Houthi terrorist designation after attack

Secretary of State Tony Blinken (left) listens to United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan during a joint news conference at the State Department iin October. Photo: Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed asked Secretary of State Tony Blinken in a phone call Monday to re-designate the Houthi rebels in Yemen as a terrorist organization, a senior Emirati official told Axios.

Why it matters: Less than a month after he assumed office, President Biden rolled back the Trump administration’s decision to make the designation. He said it hampered humanitarian assistance to the Yemeni people. Since then, the Houthis have escalated their attacks against Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region — including an attack Monday in Abu Dhabi.

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