A Big Step Forward for Health Care Transparency in New Mexico

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IMG_6121Editor’s note: NMID recently asked columnists who wrote for our January legislative guide to summarize how, in their opinion, transparency and openness fared during the recently-ended 60-day session in Santa Fe. 

One major reform to come out of the 2015 legislative session was a law that will dramatically increase the transparency of hospital prices and quality data.

The new statute, which passed both the Senate and House unanimously and was signed by the Governor, updates the existing Health Information System Act to allow the Department of Health to release hospital-specific quality and cost information. Much of this data has been collected from hospitals for the last two decades, but the old law prohibited the Department of Health from releasing it in a way that identifies specific hospitals.

Along with allowing the release of hospital-specific data, the legislation creates a stakeholder advisory committee that will determine how best to present cost and quality information—such as which quality metrics to use, how to define prices in a way that is most useful to patients, and how to make sure that patient privacy is protected.

Finally, the bill directs the Department of Health to create a user-friendly public website with hospital cost and quality information that can be accessed from the state’s Sunshine Portal.  This “Health Care Sunshine Portal” will be online no later than January 1, 2018.

The final language of the law reflects a bipartisan compromise that brought together Senate Bill 323, sponsored by Senator Mark Moores, and Senate Bill 474, sponsored by Senators Jerry Ortiz y Pino and Sander Rue. Senate Bill 474 included recommendations from Think New Mexico’s 2014 report “Making Health Care More Affordable,” most importantly the creation of a user-friendly health care transparency website.

As Think New Mexico noted in its report, 14 other states, including Colorado, Arizona, and Utah, have already created health care transparency websites, and another five states are in the process of creating them.

Research by the University of Chicago has found that states with transparency websites see the price of common, elective medical procedures drop by an average of 7% as a result of price competition. For example, hip transplants cost an average of $2,800 less in states with price disclosure websites than in states without them.

Similarly, states that publicize health care quality data, like rates of hospital-acquired infections and readmissions, have seen hospitals compete to improve quality. For example, the statewide hospital-acquired infection rate in Pennsylvania fell by 7.8% after that state began publishing the data in 2006. This saved many lives as well as millions of dollars, because when an infection occurs, the average cost of hospitalization in that state rises from $8,311 to $53,915.

Thanks to the enactment of New Mexico’s health care transparency law, New Mexicans will soon be able to reap similar benefits and will have the tools they need to shop around for the highest quality, most affordable prices for medical procedures.

The success of the health care transparency legislation highlights the value of having a nonpartisan organization like Think New Mexico working to identify reforms that can find support on both sides of the aisle. During a session in which the legislature passed fewer bills than it has since 1949, this important reform that will improve the quality of life for everyday New Mexicans succeeded thanks to a nonpartisan and collaborative process of engagement that brought all the key players to the table.

In its final form, the bill was supported by a broad coalition of stakeholders, including the New Mexico Department of Health, the New Mexico Hospital Association, Think New Mexico, the AARP, the Foundation for Open Government, the League of Women Voters, the national organization Costs of Care, and leading doctors across New Mexico, among others.

Doctors and medical residents testified in favor of the bill because it will help them do a better job of counseling their patients and making sure the treatments they prescribe do not cause unnecessary financial distress. (About 62% of personal bankruptcies nationwide are due to health care debt, up from 8% in 1981.)

Finally, thousands of New Mexicans contacted their legislators and Governor Martinez during the session, telling their stories about the difficulty they had faced in trying to find health care prices or quality information.

The work isn’t done yet. Now that the health care transparency legislation has been enacted, we enter the crucial implementation stage, during which the stakeholders will continue to work together to assist the Department of Health in making the transparency website as useful as possible for New Mexico patients.

We encourage you to visit Think New Mexico’s website at www.thinknewmexico.org and sign up for our email alerts on this issue. The active involvement of thousands of New Mexicans played a critical role in the passage of this bill, and your voices will be essential as the health care transparency website moves from statute to reality in the coming months.

Think New Mexico is a results-oriented think tank whose mission is to improve the quality of life for all New Mexicans, especially those who lack a strong voice in the political process. The views in this column are the author’s alone and do not reflect the views or opinions of New Mexico In Depth.

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