Price transparency cuts healthcare costs--even when consumers don't benefit


Health plan enrollees who are given the opportunity to shop around for healthcare services will seek less expensive options even if it won't  impact their out-of-pocket costs.

That’s the conclusion of researchers with the Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The team analyzed nearly 182,000 claims of enrollees who used Aetna’s price transparency tool between 2010 and 2012. They published their findings in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The result: “Patients who viewed price estimates prior to having their procedure chose healthcare facilities with lower relative price estimates than other patients for imaging services and sleep studies,” the study said.

Related: Consumers price shop for diagnostic, outpatient services

Consumers picked the 46th percentile most expensive imaging service when using price shopping, versus the 54th percentile versus those who did not use the tool. For sleep studies, they picked the 42nd percentile versus the 47th in the group that did not price out that service.

Connected to that was lower overall healthcare spending for both procedures, a total of $131.40 for imaging and $103.50 for sleep studies.

The study tends to confirm other research suggesting that price transparency in healthcare could cut costs significantly. A 2014 study indicated that increased transparency could save the U.S. healthcare system at least $100 billion over a decade. The hospital sector has been in support of some price transparency legislation in Congress. However, few states offer anything approaching a useful level of price transparency for the average consumer.

And the researchers for this study did pose several caveats: “Future research is needed to determine whether these patterns hold if and when these tools are used more broadly. We also cannot observe whether patients used the tool not to comparison shop but to become educated on costs in advance of receiving medical care,” the said. And, the researchers also raised concerns about the fact that a relatively small percentage of Aetna enrollees used its price search tool, noting that barriers to use still remained in place.