California launches price comparison website but procedure costs remain unclear

California is the latest state to get into the healthcare price transparency game, with one of its regulators launching a healthcare services comparison site in conjunction with Consumer Reports and the University of California at San Francisco.

And while the California Healthcare Compare website contains a lot of data on a variety of procedures, it remains far from being a resource for would-be patients to determine exactly what a procedure will cost them. It only provides out-of-pocket cost estimates for insured patients, and they can range from a few hundred dollars to thousands. Instead, the site encourages users to visit a variety of other cost-estimate websites run by insurers and other companies.

"The Healthcare Compare website makes it possible for Californians to search for common medical procedures, to get average and a range of prices in their area, and to compare medical providers based on quality measures--before making the important decision about where to seek medical care," said California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones in a statement. "This is also a first step toward convincing doctors, hospitals, insurers and legislators of the benefits of sharing more detailed price information to allow consumers faced with high-deductible plans to make better decisions about how to spend their scarce dollars."

Few, if any states, have extensive price transparency policies. A recent report concluded that only five states provide enough information for consumers to make informed decisions. And Massachusetts, which has actually mandated price transparency among its provider community, still has myriad obstacles in the way of achieving that goal.

Officials said at a press conference on Monday that the website covers more than 100 different medical procedures and about three-quarters of the payments made in California for medical care.

For example, users of the website can check for costs by 22 different geographic regions statewide. For breast cancer care in western Los Angeles County, the out-of-pocket costs for patients should average $594, with a high estimate of $3,297. The insurer would pay a range between $3,898 and $47,310. They can also compare providers based on their outcomes on a variety of care services.

Jones noted that insurers would have to provide more information regarding his ideal price transparency tool: "Granular price information by provider and faciity married to quality information." He added that he hoped the website would whet the appetite of consumers for that kind of concise data.

"I am hopeful ... consumers will demand it," he said.

To learn more:
- visit the California Hospital Compare website 
- check out the Department of Insurance statement