Cost: Beachgoers may have seen information about hospital prices on plane banners. Courtesy photo

Sofia Laurel Pirri, Special to the Daily Press

Last weekend, Santa Monica beachgoers may have noticed several planes bearing artwork by Shephard Fairey, the artist behind the iconic Obama “Hope” poster and the OBEY Giant campaign.

The recent Fairey design flying above Santa Monica was created for Power to the Patients, a grassroots movement that began in March to inform patients that they now have the right to know the price of healthcare before receiving it. The organization’s plane pull campaign followed President Biden’s July 15 executive order reinforcing hospital price transparency and was the first of several flybys in Santa Monica scheduled for the next nine weeks.

Although the federal rule requiring hospitals to disclose the prices they negotiate with insurers was put in effect on January 11, 2021, many citizens have no idea they even have the right to know cost before receiving care.

“Very few people are aware,” said Kevin Morra, one of the leaders of the Power to the Patients campaign, a director and producer, and a former Santa Monica resident. “That’s why there was a need for a grassroots organization like Power to the Patients: because somebody needs to raise awareness. The general media has not done it. Politicians have not done it.”

Advocates said hospitals have not only downplayed the new rule but have blatantly disobeyed it. According to a June 21 study by the American Journal of Managed Care, only 60% of the 20 hospitals on the US News & World Report honor roll display their cash prices online and only 5% display their minimum negotiated charges online, a direct violation of the January federal requirement.

This lack of transparency can wreak disastrous consequences on the lives of those who receive medical treatment without knowing the cost.

“We have met directly with hundreds of patients who tell their stories and how their entire lives have been derailed by having no understanding of what their financial obligations would be,” Kevin Morra said.

“That begins with getting a bill in the mail that oftentimes patients could never afford. Then if they don’t figure out how to pay it, suddenly they’re being harassed by collection agencies. Hospital associations are suing patients, their credit scores are being devalued, and they can lose their homes.”

Morra also explains that the financial hardship posed by unforeseen medical bills has prevented families from being able to send their kids to college and has even led to suicide — either out of the despair of not being able to pay enormous medical bills or because people refuse mental health treatment out of fear they cannot afford it.

“Everybody has a story, that’s what we’re finding out,” said Morra.

“Unfortunately, the chances of becoming a patient in our lifetimes is almost 100%. So this is truly a situation that will affect all of us.”

The goal of the campaign is not only to allow patients to choose the most affordable option and to prevent them from being blindsided by medical costs, but also to bring about an overall decrease in the price of medical care as a result of transparency.

“There’s no incentive right now for any hospital to lower their prices because it’s not a factor in people’s decision,” said Morra. “There needs to be transparency so that patients have the ability to shop for the financial situation or hospital that meets their needs… that’s essential in competition.”

Power to the Patients has attempted to spread awareness for the campaign primarily via artistic means. In addition to the Santa Monica plane pull campaign, the organization has commissioned local artists around the country to paint murals with Fairey’s logo, everywhere from New York to North Carolina.

The awareness movement has also resonated with many celebrated artists in addition to Fairey, including actors Cynthia Erivo and Susan Sarandon, photographer Martin Schoeller, the artistic group Tats Cru, and the dancer and survivor of the Boston Marathon bombings Adrianne Haslet.

In a promotional video for the campaign, Shephard Fairey explained his involvement with the cause: “I’m participating in the Power to the Patients movement because I’m a type 1 diabetic, my wife has multiple sclerosis, and I’ve seen the devastation that the high cost of medical bills can create in people’s lives.”

Fairey’s artwork for Power to the Patients will be flying from Malibu to Marina Del Rey the next nine weeks, on Saturdays from 2 to 6 p.m. and Sundays from 10 to 2 p.m.

“It is everybody’s responsibility as an American, not only to understand that this is now a patient right, but also to help spread the message and spread the word,” emphasized Kevin Morra. “We won’t be able to do it alone.”

Visit https://www.powertothepatients.org for more information.

news@smdp.com