Consumer Reports tells patients how to comparison shop for care

The idea is to get physicians and others to reveal costs.

By Emily Berry — Posted June 13, 2012

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Patients looking to avoid surprise medical bills should research costs online; compare prices, whether they are getting care in or out of their insurance network; and try to negotiate with doctors if they receive an unexpected out-of-network bill. Those are tips from Consumer Reports, the magazine that buys, tests and reviews such products as mobile phones and minivans.

An article scheduled to appear in the magazine’s July issue will examine health care cost variation and advise readers to comparison shop whenever possible.

The article is a reflection of a movement that supporters of health care cost transparency say is under way but still in its infancy.

Health insurers, consumer advocates and economists are among those who want patients to recognize cost variation in health care, find out what care should cost and comparison shop. For now, they say, that’s a challenge. Many consumers just aren’t motivated to research costs, but even those who are have trouble finding reliable price lists.

In many cases, price information is either hidden or dependent on the insurance plan in which the patient is enrolled, said Nancy Metcalf, senior program editor.

“More people are switching to plans that have quite a lot of cost-sharing,” she said. “They are being told, ‘This is for your own good, because you need more skin in the game,’ but we’ve heard from consumers who did their best that it’s just incredibly hard to find out the costs of care.”

The article introduces readers to two searchable databases that offer some cost estimates customized by the user’s ZIP code: FAIR Health, which was created under a settlement between insurers and the New York state attorney general’s office, and Healthcare Blue Book, a free search site that offers cost benchmarks for health care.

Consumer Reports readers are advised to look online for prices, stay inside their health insurance plan network whenever possible, and try to negotiate settlements of surprise out-of-network bills.

Jeff Rice, MD, a health care executive and radiologist, is CEO of Healthcare Blue Book and is quoted in theConsumer Reports article. He said that in addition to monitoring its own site, his company watches search engine traffic for signs of interest in comparing health care costs. He said interest is growing but still comes from a minority of patients.

“The majority of patients still don’t know — that’s definitely the case, but more patients are starting to understand,” he said.

A survey of 100,000 households conducted in April by Truven Health Analytics, formerly Thomson Reuters Healthcare, found that 16% of Americans who have received some kind of healthcare service in the past year have sought out pricing information before receiving that care, up from 11% in 2010, said Bobbi Coluni, senior director of consumer solutions for the research firm.

She said physicians can be a crucial source of information for consumers who are caught between understanding that they should shop around and lacking enough information about cost and quality. “Physicians are in many ways the trusted advisers for consumers, and having cost be something they know nothing about hasn’t served the relationship well.”

Dr. Rice said a handful of physician practices have begun using Healthcare Blue Book, logging in on their computers or handheld devices to help patients predict the cost of lab tests, procedures or hospital stays.

He said taking the time to understand and consider costs is part of providing the best possible care. “They’re responsible for overall patient care. If they order tests that their patients can’t afford, then the patient is not going to get any care.”

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