When I was a kid, my family vacationed at the South Texas beach resort of South Padre. Our trip always included an excursion across the border to eat at The Drive Inn in Matamoros. After lunch we would shop the Mexican markets. I loved shopping for silver bracelets and embroidered dresses. But I hated that I had no idea how much anything should cost. I felt like a sucker every single time I agreed to a price.
That’s how I feel about medical care now, except instead of $12 bracelets we’re talking about $12,000 medical procedures. I mentioned before that when my third child was born I talked the hospital down from the original bill of $11,000 to the final bill of under $3,000.
This doesn’t just happen with high dollar procedures. Recently my son had a wart frozen off his finger. The doctor billed $174 to our insurance carrier. They allowed $131.14 for the procedure. The doctor’s office said, “Oh, okay. That’s what we’ll take.”
So does anyone pay $174 to get a wart frozen off? Presumably the only suckers who do are cash pay customers who don’t know they can haggle as if they’re buying a used lamp off Craigslist.
It’s not just my anecdotal experience that suggests this is a problem.
A study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in March 2013 showed that pricing for hip arthroplasty was unavailable or only partially available from over 35 percent of institutions when requested. When it was available the quotes ranged from $11,100 to $125,798.
How can that possibly be okay?
My question is this: Why can’t we have a price list? Why can’t we just know that freezing a wart off is $150, because that’s how much the doctor’s office price list says?
I’m not the only one who has asked this question. One surgical hospital in Oklahoma City decided that transparent pricing should be available to all patients. Online.
Seventeen years ago, anesthesiologists Keith Smith and Steven Lantier opened the Surgery Center of Oklahoma (SCO). Transparent pricing has been a cornerstone of their model from the beginning. They started posting prices online in 2009. SCO's facility is state of the art, offering low infection rates along with its low costs. SCO is physician owned and managed. They credit this for their ability to keep costs low.
High-deductible insurance plans, company self-insurance, and cost-sharing ministries are becoming more common. Consumers feel the direct impact of medical costs. The demand for price transparency will grow as company benefits packages begin to shrink.
Few hospitals offer price transparency the way SCO does. But the age of the smart phone and crowdsourcing isn't waiting on them. New Choice Health allows you to compare facilities based on price, accreditation and experience. Mobi Health News reported in January that eight companies were developing mobile apps to serve a similar purpose. Clear Health Costs uses crowdsourcing to compare medical costs in and around New York City.
In the end we won’t need providers to offer price transparency – we’ll create it ourselves. In a world where we can make a video of a sleeping kitten go viral, it doesn’t take much to aggregate the prices of medical procedures. Providers like SCO who understand that it’s inevitable and right to provide price transparency will come out on top.
Amy Rogers is not a practicing physician and nothing written here should be taken as medical advice from either Amy or AssetBuilder. Medical decisions should be made with care in consultation with your health care provider.