Fierce Q&A: UnitedHealthcare launches price tool for retail shoppers

Dina Overland

If I could summarize the theme of America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) Institute 2012 held next week in Salt Lake City, I could do it with one word--change.

Upon learning that UnitedHealthcare launched a new price comparison tool called mHealthcare Cost Estimator, I was intrigued to learn more, particularly because of the personal retail shopping experience the insurer claimed it provided. The tool uses UnitedHealth's own actual contracted rates with providers in 47 markets to provide "highly accurate" prices. FierceHealthPayer turned to Nick Martin, vice president of innovation, research and development at UnitedHealth Group.

FierceHealthPayer: UnitedHealthcare describes the cost estimator as a tool that brings a retail shopping experience to healthcare. How were you able to achieve that?
Nick Martin: With myHealthcare Cost Estimator, people can access prices for more than 100 treatments and procedures, and compare, side-by-side, both the quality and cost information for 240,000 different physicians and hospitals.

In addition, the online tool offers a simple, intuitive user interface that makes understanding health treatment options as easy as comparison-shopping online for airline tickets, electronic devices or other consumer goods.

FHP: What drove UnitedHealthcare to establish the cost estimator?
UnitedHealthcare already has been offering such a tool for more than five years, and myHealthcare Cost Estimator is the latest enhancement that offers consumers maximum accuracy in pricing information.

UnitedHealthcare is committed to providing necessary tools and information to help our plan participants make better healthcare decisions for themselves and their loved ones. myHealthcare Cost Estimator is another step in that direction, using technology to advance the transparency and simplicity of healthcare and make it easier for customers to understand the cost of specific services and procedures.

FHP: What does UnitedHealthcare hope to gain from its members who use the new tool?
UnitedHealthcare is committed to helping people improve their health and wellness, which in turn can help improve the health of the larger healthcare system. And one key way of accomplishing that is providing better information to help people make better decisions.

FHP: How does UnitedHealthcare's cost estimator differ from other payers' cost tools?
Unlike some comparable tools, which may only rely on old claims data from a small portion of employers, myHealthcare Cost Estimator data is based on actual physician and hospital rates for more than 100 different procedures and services across 47 geographic areas. These estimates include surgeries, lab tests, radiology tests and office visits.

myHealthcare Cost Estimator also is integrated with UnitedHealthcare's customer service tools, providing custom "care paths" for individuals based on the treatment they're researching. Care paths bundle quality and price information, alternate treatment options, local physicians and hospitals performing the procedure and health benefits information to help consumers better understand and anticipate the entire healthcare experience for a given treatment or procedure.

FHP: Provider collaboration is key to ensuring the cost estimator's accuracy. How did UnitedHealthcare reach out to providers?
Collaboration with healthcare providers is always a top priority. Prior to launch, we shared information about myHealthcare Cost Estimator with a number of providers for their feedback and input and continue to actively communicate with them.

FHP: Does UnitedHealthcare have any future plans for the cost estimator? Will it continue to update cost information?
UnitedHealthcare will continue to expand the capabilities and the availability of myHealthcare Cost Estimator to meet the needs of our customers, plan participants and care providers.

Future plans include expanding the list of treatments and procedures available through the tool and the geographic markets in which plan participants are able to access it. UnitedHealthcare will also integrate myHealthcare Cost Estimator with Health4Me, a mobile app that allows people to access important healthcare information using a smartphone.

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