Monday, August 22, 2011

A Student's Summer Reflections on Price Transparency

Jeffrey Herman is a sophomore at Brandeis University and just completed a summer internship with Costs of Care.

I can’t think of a single industry that is more inherently personal—more emotional than health care.

Everyone has a story of how the health care system has impacted their lives. My family’s experience with the healthcare system had both positive and negative results. Thankfully, my brother survived a brain tumor as a young child and my father’s heart disease was treated early enough to prevent a heart attack. However, the bills for these procedures were astonishing. Perhaps even more shocking was the complete inability of doctors and insurance companies to give an accurate estimate of what the procedures would cost. There was no more clarity with routine follow-up procedures like MRIs and stress tests. On any given day, a doctor may order the same test several times, so how does uncertainty exist about how much it costs? And if doctors don’t know the cost, how are patients supposed to be informed consumers of health care?

Many insured patients don’t worry about how much a procedure costs—frankly, with third-party payers, they often don’t have to. In fact, if you are sick and diagnostic tests are covered, you might push for your doctor to administer all potentially beneficial services. However, at some point the over-utilization of services at unclear prices results in detrimental care that is ultimately more costly than helpful. In some cases, particularly for patients with high deductibles or loop holes in their insurance plans, these costs may even cause significant financial harm.

When policymakers and doctors try to arbitrate solutions to the problem of price transparency, progress often can seem out of reach. Most avenues to change are either politically unpalatable or financially impractical. So instead, I propose addressing the problem from a grassroots level. To fix the American health care system as a whole we must engage consumers and doctors to care about it on a personal level. Informed consumers will push for efficient stewardship of resources and doctors will oblige if there are the right incentives to do so.

Several websites, such as Clear Health Costs and HealthCare Bluebook, provide easily accessible information about the price of various procedures. Clear Health Costs even breaks down prices by specific physicians/hospitals. If it is so easy to find reasonably priced care, patients will be more inclined to be cost-effective consumers. Additionally, such websites could exert competitive pressure on caregivers to both have reasonable prices and to be knowledgeable of what their services cost. Assuming that these websites will expand and spark similar sites, they will become an invaluable resource for health care consumers and caregivers.

The widespread use of social media also has significant potential to provide cost information to consumers. Eventually, Twitter and Facebook users may be able to access price information while connecting with friends, family, and other aquaintances. This convergence of health care information with personal networks promotes knowledgeable consumers. Perhaps more importantly, if these health care cost-consciousness permeates social media, users will feel social pressure to spend resources wisely. Imagine 750 million Facebook users with a price transparency application that appears in a newsfeed right along with friends’ status updates and wall posts.

After reflecting upon the state of the American health care system, it can be difficult not to feel optimistic. Party politics seem to overshadow progressive policies. Any potentially beneficial policy or idea is immediately rejected because it will be politically inflammatory or financially taxing. However everyone—on all ends of the political spectrum—can agree that change is necessary. Perhaps a grassroots approach that engages the public in cost-effective care with greater price transparency will bring about much needed reform. Providers and lawmakers will take notice if the public pressure is great enough. Ultimately, it is up to us.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Dropping the Price of Surgery

The following anecdote is by Dr. Jeffrey Rice, MD, JD - CEO of

I would like to share a story about my son’s recent surgery that, while only one simple case, reveals the foundational problem with the U.S. health care system.

I write this story as a father of a 12 year old boy who has cerebral palsy. Jack is fortunate to be healthy and active with minor medical needs. As he has grown he experienced some issues with contractures in his right lower leg which recently required a minor 2 hour outpatient surgical procedure. That is where our saga begins.

When Jack’s surgery was scheduled I started the time consuming process of getting price estimates from the surgeon, anesthesiologist and the facility since we have a high deductible insurance plan. The physician fees were straight forward and relatively easy to obtain, not so with the facility. Jack’s surgery was scheduled at the local hospital’s outpatient surgical facility. I called the hospital to request a price for the surgery and they said they couldn’t really tell me. They offered to send the procedure codes to an external reviewer who would provide a general idea of the anticipated charges. Three days later the answer came back at $37,000. I reiterated that I had high deductible insurance and needed to know the actual price they would bill me after an insurance adjustment to the network fee schedule.

The hospital next referred me to my insurance company. The insurance company referred me to their PPO network. The PPO network said that they could not reveal the prices until after the case was performed. I called back to the hospital.

At this point the hospital said that they could not tell me how much the discounted price would be either and they also wouldn’t negotiate a cash price with me. They expected the discounted price to be in the range of $15,000 to $25,000. They also offered to limit my out of pocket portion to $10,000. I am now on day six with over a dozen phone calls; not the price I expected for a 2 hour outpatient procedure.

I asked my son’s surgeon if he ever operated at any independent Ambulatory Surgical Centers (ASC) and if so would that be an appropriate place to perform my son’s surgery. As it turns out there is an ASC in the ground floor of his office building and it would be no problem to do the surgery there. One phone call and 10 minutes later I have the exact price for his surgery- $1,515.

My son had his surgery and is doing well. We got a fair price because we demanded more of the system.

This simple surgery makes me pause to consider so many issues we face in our health care system. Why does it take days and dozens of phone calls to get pricing information from hospitals? Why can’t hospitals provide upfront prices for their services? Why do they expect to bill patients unknown amounts that they determine after patients have already received care? And what about the patients that don’t know the system. Would a patient facing a $40,000 bill delay or defer surgery when they might get the care they need if they were able to use the $1,500 center? Do they know to ask? No. Does anyone really help them? No.

And what about the healthcare providers. Why didn’t my son’s surgeon recommend the ASC in the first instance? Why hadn’t the surgeon done a single procedure in the ASC in over 2 years? At 10 cases per surgical day, at about $20,000 more per case; how much has this practice cost patients, employers and insurance companies? Millions each year for one surgeon and his patients?

It all goes back to our foundational problem with U.S. healthcare. The business model of our health care system is based on third-party payments from insurance and government. This has evolved to the point that many patients and providers don’t stop to consider why they shouldn’t spend $37,000 for something that could easily be delivered for $1,500.

It is not easy being a patient-consumer, but it can be done. Let’s hope the system moves in a direction that allows this to happen.