Public radio stations crowdsource price transparency initiative

A new price transparency effort in California has an unusual source: two public radio stations, reported.

KPCC and KQED, the primary National Public Radio affiliates in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, have resorted to crowdsourcing from their listeners to obtain prices for common procedures such as mammograms and lower back MRIs. The program, known as Price Check, also receives support from a private price transparency firm, Clear Health Costs, which provides pricing data to self-pay patients.

The KQED/KPCC database also includes data from insured participants who receive statements from their carriers as to how much they pay for such services.

"Because there was no database where consumers could easily look up costs, we created one," Lisa Aliferis, who edits KQED's "State of Health" blog, recently wrote in JAMA Internal Medicine. "These are not 'chargemaster' prices from physician or hospital billing systems because virtually no one pays those. These are not 'average' prices either. You do not use 'average price' to shop for a car or a computer--you want the real price. Instead, we asked members of our public media audience in California to share, anonymously, what they and their insurers actually paid."

Not surprisingly, the databases reflect what is a fact in the rest of the United States: pricing is all over the map for identical procedures. The cost of a lower back MRI in Southern California ranges from $390 at an imaging center in the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles to $1,685 at Saint John's Health Center, a hospital in Santa Monica that is about 12 miles to the west.

Price transparency initiatives elsewhere in the United States have sometimes pressured hospitals to lower their prices, although they have encountered resistance from both hospitals and payers.

Aliferis noted that the database has received attention from both consumers and physicians. "Our belief was that people want quality at a fair price and that shining a bright light on health costs would help drive discussions about quality. But we also found physicians who were fascinated by our project and wanted to share their own cash prices," she wrote.

To learn more:
- read the article
- check out the JAMA Internal Medicine article
- here's the Price Check website