Web Sites Help Consumers Shop for Health Care

Published October 1, 2006

Prompted in part by the rise of consumer-driven health plans and higher deductibles, and in part by a Minnesota law requiring the development by October 1 of a public Web site on common hospital charges, several insurance carriers in Minnesota are posting price information online to help members become savvier health care consumers.

“We’re trying to raise awareness that consumers have the freedom to choose,” said Patricia Lund, a spokeswoman for HealthPartners, a Minnesota-based HMO.

Americans are used to comparing prices when searching for a new car, an updated computer, or even a new house. Health insurance carriers are looking for ways to bring this cost-conscious buying pattern to the world of health care services.

Increasing numbers of carriers are adding or expanding online pricing tools for members, allowing individuals to compare prices for health services at different hospitals, clinics, and doctors’ offices.

Selecting Services

The information varies greatly depending on the Web site. For example, a member of HealthPartners can log on and select a specific service, such as office visits, lab tests, or common outpatient procedures. From there, the Web site provides a range of prices associated with “High Price” facilities and a range of prices from “Best Choice” facilities, which the company describes as high-quality, low-cost facilities.

A member can then choose to find the “Best Choice” facilities based on a ZIP code or city.

HealthPartners launched its site three years ago. Senior Vice President Scott Aebischer said the company adds relevant data frequently.

According to HealthPartners’ Web site, for example, an MRI of the brain at a “High Price” facility ranges from $630 to $2,000. At the “Best Choice” facilities, it costs $537 to $598.

Lund said if all of the carrier’s members chose the “Best Choice” option for MRIs, the total savings for the company and the members would be nearly $7 million a year.

Comparing Costs

HealthPartners offers a separate section on its Web site that allows members to compare providers’ quality, based on a set of criteria the site provides. Ratings are based on surveys of other members.

A disclaimer notes the information on the site does not take into account a member’s specific health plan benefits.

Aebischer said it’s too early to tell how much money the site could save the company overall, but data show members are visiting it more often. In June 2006 the company had 2,800 hits on its medical cost calculator, a tool that allows members to estimate their expenses, up from 1,300 hits in June 2005.

Consumers aren’t the only ones benefitting from the new tools. Health care providers can now see how their prices compare to those of other providers in their area.

Expanding Sites

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota has had a cost-comparison tool available online for about a year and a half, and in mid-July it launched a site with detailed information on primary care clinics. Its online tool combines information about quality and cost.

Mary Ann Stump, the company’s chief innovation officer, said consumers want information about cost in context.

Stump said insurance carriers across the country are creating or expanding such sites. But she said the data must be meaningful to consumers, who want to know not only how much a service will cost but also how many nurses are on the hospital floor or how many private rooms a hospital has. The buzzword in the industry is “transparency,” but Stump said transparency matters only if the information is “useful and used.”

Hilary Masell Oswald ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Evanston, Illinois.