Price transparency is part of the Affordable Care Act, not an alternative to it

Photo by Flickr user Tax Credits used under a Creative Commons License.
Photo by Flickr user Tax Credits used under a Creative Commons License.

A few weeks ago, NewsOK covered a Twitter debate about Oklahoma’s health care policy. It began when Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs analyst Jonathan Small implied that advocates of accepting federal funds for insuring low-income Oklahomans were ignoring other efforts to make health care affordable.

Small cited an article about the Surgery Center of Oklahoma, which posts the prices of all of their procedures online. The Center’s founder, Dr. Keith Smith, said that he does not accept Medicaid or Medicare patients because regulations would not allow posting prices online.

This claim should be treated skeptically. Recently on his blog, Dr. Smith said he quit taking Medicare patients because the program did not pay him enough, even as he claims that the prices offered at his surgery center are half of what Medicare pays hospitals.

Dr. Smith may not agree with what Medicare pays, but he is moving in the same direction as the Obama Administration on price transparency. The Administration has released data showing what hospitals charge versus what Medicare pays for the 100 most common inpatient procedures. Even more significant is that the Affordable Care Act is creating Health Insurance Marketplaces (Exchanges) to give consumers more information about price and coverage options so they can choose between competing health plans.

More certainly needs to be done, and the Surgery Center of Oklahoma has been rightfully applauded for its transparent pricing. So why not acknowledge that both sides are working towards the same goals?

Dr. Smith is not only an outspoken opponent of the Affordable Care Act. He opposes any government involvement in health care and says the nation is drifting “toward socialist redistribution and totalitarianism.” In the Twitter debate, Small argued that accepting federal dollars would “ignore biggest problem & dump money into a system controlled by a black box.”

Yet despite the claims of Jonathan Small and Dr. Smith, price transparency is hardly a replacement for accepting $8 billion to extend affordable health care to the working poor. Do we really want to say that 233,000 Oklahomans without access to health care is not the biggest problem, or that we should deny help for these people because the health care system is not efficient enough? Real people’s lives are at stake, as opponents push an ideological fantasy of a world where Medicare and Medicaid are abolished and a person can comparison shop while having a heart attack or stroke.

Far better would be to expand access while continuing to support the efforts of the Surgery Center of Oklahoma, the Obama Administration, and advocates on both the right and the left working to increase transparency and reduce costs. Despite the extreme politicization of the health care debate, the common ground is there. We only need to look for it.


Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

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