Are patients actually checking out hospital prices?

More hospitals and health plans make their pricing available as a part of a growing transparency movement, but are patients actually checking them out?

The Texas Hospital Association (THA) operates a website, www.txpricepoint.org, that lists what hospitals charge for many procedures. Meanwhile, two-thirds of the nation's health plans also provide enrollees with cost estimates for specific medical procedures, according to Dallas Morning News business columnist Jim Landers. 

But fewer than 1,500 unique users have visited the THA price website since it launched seven years ago, according to Landers. And health insurers report that only 2 percent of its enrollees use any of the price comparison data they provide. In Massachusetts, where even more pricing data is available, insurers primarily access the information to check out what hospitals charge and how much their competitors pay for procedures. 

Yet despite the ongoing trend of cost-shifting onto patients, Landers noted that many will meet their out-of-pocket costs virtually the moment they enter the hospital, providing a perverse incentive to use the most expensive provider.

"For some consumers ... the hospitals with the highest prices tell them who's doing the best work," Landers observed. "Once their financial obligation is met, pushing their insurance to the max can seem like an effective way of getting the best care."

Despite the evidence that consumers don't use the available healthcare finance data, some industry observers say that price transparency could save the sector $100 billion a year if deployed by all hospitals and providers. However, research by the Center for Studying Health System Change and the West Health Policy Center suggested the industry could realize a lot of the savings if the data were available to providers, such as having prices listed when physicians order tests electronically.

To learn more:
- read the Dallas Morning News column
- check out the Texas hospital price website

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