Selling Mass. On A New Idea: Shop For Care

Could Massachusetts be the only government in the world trying to persuade citizens to shop for health care? I'm scanning Google, trying to come up with another country, province, city...maybe some remote island that has decided: It's time to learn how to get the best deal you can on care.

Nope, I can't come up with any other place.

But here it is: Get The Deal on Care. In addition to the website, you may see ads on the T, Twitter or Facebook that will encourage patients to become more savvy consumers of health care.

"We're at the beginning of a movement here," said Barbara Anthony, undersecretary for consumer affairs and business regulation, referring to a provision in a Massachusetts law that took effect Oct. 1. It requires all insurers to make real-time prices available to members online and over the phone, and provide members their cost for the service, taking into account co-pays and deductibles.

"We hear about the dawn of patient-centered care," she said. "We want to put patients in the driver seat. Well, you can't put consumers or patients in the driver seat if they don't have information."

But most patients still don't have much of a reason to compare costs. And those who do, because they have a high deductible plan, may not realize that prices vary a lot from one hospital or clinic to the next. And they may not connect health care with that gut level drive to find a good bargain. In health care, patients tend to think the most expensive place must be better, even though there is often not much difference in the quality that is measured.

"Patients aren't used to shopping. That will take an adjustment in terms of attitude," Anthony said.

Some major employer groups in Massachusetts say they will work to promote use of the new cost calculator tools as well.

"We have long argued that increased price transparency in costs and pricing was needed so that consumers could actually know what they are buying, and how much it was going to cost," Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said in a statement.

There is some controversy about the effect public pricing will have on doctors and hospitals who can now see what their competitors are paid by different insurers.

Hurst argues that public competition will lower prices. But some who study the Massachusetts market say posting prices may actually drive up the cost of health care.

"The providers at the low end of the totem pole, most of whom have zero leverage in the market, will look to have their reimbursements increased, while the folks at the top — and it's no mystery who we're talking about — will continue to charge whatever they want," said Bob Carey, with RLCarey Consulting, a benefits consulting firm.

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Martha Bebinger Reporter
Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR.



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