In August, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, supported by many local chambers including the one in Tyler, filed a lawsuit to block the implementation of two provisions contained in the Transparency in Coverage federal regulations.

The lawsuit aimed to block enforcement of the HHS insurance price transparency rule that would require hospitals across the country to publicly publish prices for patients to see. The lawsuit was withdrawn later that month in light of the regulations’ delay.

The lawsuit claimed the insurance price transparency rule went beyond the federal government’s authority and would reduce competition and raise prices for consumers. The withdrawal of the suit came after the federal government said it would delay the insurance price transparency rule by six months.

Though the lawsuit was dropped later that month, a national awareness campaign that advocates for transparency in health care prices recently came to Tyler to advocate their mission by painting a mural on Rudy’s Barber Shop in downtown Tyler.

Kevin Morra, executive producer of the newly founded nonprofit Power to the Patients, said that as the nonprofit watched the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sue HHS on behalf of profit, installing the mural in the community of Tyler will let them know that, on behalf of patients across the country, “we are watching.”

The mural states, “Prices are now a patient’s right” and empowers those who view it to demand them. On the mural, a fist represents resistance to the status quo, righteousness of the people and justice. In the fist, a caduceus is held up to represent modern, commercial medicine in the United States.

“We are a reminder that there are much more important things than the bottom line. Our objectives are to ease the struggle of good people, especially those confronted with a health adversity,” Morra said. “It’s not OK to allow citizens across this country who face illness or injury to simultaneously face financial insecurity as a result. Bankruptcy as a result of hospitals illegally hiding their prices is not OK with us.”

New research published in July in Journal of American Medical Association found that collection agencies held $140 billion in unpaid medical bills last year. An earlier study, examining debts in 2016, estimated that Americans held $81 billion in medical debt.

According to new U.S. Census Bureau data on the burden of medical debt, approximately 19% of U.S. households could not afford to pay for medical care up front or when they received care in 2017.

“Because prices are not published, there has not been a consistency with what services cost, sometimes, even within the same hospital,” Morra added, claiming that two people could go in for the same procedure, but be given different prices each.

The lawsuit claimed the insurance price transparency rule would reduce competition and raise prices for consumers, but Morra argued from an economic standpoint, competition only happens when competitors publish their prices.

“If prices are unknown to the consumer, in this situation, patients, then there’s no reason for hospitals or any other commercial organization to be competitive with their pricing because if all the prices are concealed, pricing does not become determinant for a consumer choice,” he said.

The nonprofit, which was launched in March this year, receives hundreds of emails and messages everyday from patients who share their stories about going into the hospital to deal with an illness or injury and coming out financially insecure.

For Morra, the mission becomes personal after he spent time in hospitals as he watched his parents battle cancer, as well as being on the receiving end of those bills for his parents’ care.

Morra said the nonprofit has been painting murals since before its official founding. Since February, those murals have been shared across the United States. The nonprofit has also published public service announcements and worked with artist and activist Shepard Fairey to create artwork for their mural.

Power to the Patients is composed of artists, filmmakers and activists, which has impacted projects and their execution plan, leading into art murals. The nonprofit had projects planned across the country, but focused on Tyler as a result of the now-dropped lawsuit.

The organization connected with Tyler resident and artist GEMINI, who is a member of a graffiti crew. He helped the organization obtain a location for the mural. From there, the nonprofit consulted a second artist to help, Michael McPheeters, also known as Mr. Mural, who they previously had worked with in Dallas, to complete the mural in Tyler with GEMINI.

GEMINI said he felt great for helping the nonprofit share its message.

“To me it was the awareness it brings to everyone regardless of who you are. Essentially just looking out for one another and spreading positive messages through wicked, large scale art,” he said.

Morra said that when it comes to embedding their message in communities, the group relies on local activists with a like-minded voice that also want to support patient awareness. The wall is expected to be up in Tyler for about a year.

 
 

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Bilingual Multimedia Journalist

I cover COVID-19 and health in the East Texas area for Tyler Morning Telegraph, the Longview News-Journal and Tyler Paper Español. Stephen F. Austin State University alumna. For story ideas, email me at rtorres@tylerpaper.com.