"The President's action today represents one of the major steps in the long history of American healthcare reform, and one of the most significant steps ever taken to put American patients in control of their care", Azar said.
But just how useful the effort will prove for consumers remains unclear.
The executive order calls for patients to get an estimate of their out-of-pocket costs before they get care.
This new executive order requires "hospitals to publicly disclose amounts that reflect what people actually pay for services in an easy-to-read format".
Q: What does the order do? An experiment underway in Colorado is set to reduce insurance premiums in the mountain county of Summit next year, after large government and employer health plans made a decision to negotiate prices directly with the local hospital.
Lack of information about health care prices is a widespread problem. "That's what's driving all of this". The data would be stripped of details that could identify individual patients. This data could be useful to researchers, but probably less helpful for patient health care shopping.
Matt Eyles, president of America's Health Insurance Plans, the industry's main trade group, said it supports the notion that patients should have accurate, real-time information about costs so they can make informed decisions about their care. "We'll have phenomenal health care".
"It sounds simple to reveal prices to a government agency that then would make them available to the public". Ron Wyden, D-Ore., ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, introduced a bill last month that would require health insurers to tell their beneficiaries what out-of-pocket costs they would face for any in-network procedure or prescription drug they seek.
Another limitation to the executive order: It applies only to hospitals and the medical staff they employ. Many hospitals, however, are staffed by doctors who are not directly employed, or laboratories that are also separate. That means negotiated prices for services provided by such laboratories or physicians would not have to be disclosed. That information, designated with arcane billing codes, is hard for consumers to decipher.
KEITH: Right. Also, most people have insurance, and so they aren't price-sensitive in the same way. Both hospital groups and insurance companies have written letters expressing their displeasure with an earlier request for comments about requiring broader price transparency. "It makes sense to do an average for that particular hospital, so I can see how much it's going to cost to have my knee replaced at St. Joe's versus St. Anne's". Because of varying levels of coverage by insurance companies, the same procedure could cost one patient a couple hundred dollars, while costing another a thousand or more.
The president has been looking for ways to counter Democrats on health care - an issue they've owned since President Obama passed his Affordable Care Act in 2010 with the help of a Democratic Congress.
The short answer is maybe.
"The president has a clear vision for American healthcare", Azar said. This would put consumers, and patients in the driver seat.
"Institutions like Consumer Reports or Consumer Checkbook could do some kind of high-level comparison between facilities or doctors", says Tim Jost, a professor emeritus at the Washington and Lee University School of Law. You trust the person they tell you you should go see. And insurers say they might be hampered in their ability to negotiate if rivals all know what they each pay.
The official also said such negotiated rates already are routinely included in explanation-of-benefit notices insurers send customers following a hospitalization.