More than 15 million Americans were covered by high-deductible insurance plans as of January 2013, according to America’s Health Insurance Plans — a marked jump from the one million covered by similar plans in 2005.
With maximum out-of-pocket costs for those plans of $6,350 for individuals and $12,700 for families, the cost of medical care can be an overwhelming burden. But the prices of many procedures can range significantly between health-care providers and many of them don’t disclose those prices beforehand.
Dr. Bill Hennessey, a practicing physiatrist in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, who also sees patients in Morgantown, said the hidden costs of health care can keep people from the care they need. He said that many are unaware of their options, which include hospitals, private physicians, ambulatory surgery centers, independent imaging centers and independent lab centers.
So earlier this month, Hennessey launched www.pratter.us to make those costs known. The website, an online health-care cost-comparison portal, has so far collected the billing information for certain common procedures for hospitals in six states, including West Virginia.
“Would you go to the car dealership and sign that you bought a car without knowing what you’ll pay for it? Would you go to a restaurant and eat a meal and sign to pay an unknown amount at a later date? So why do we do that with health care?” Hennessey asked. “We are now health-care consumers, not just patients. And as health-care consumers, we have rights, including the right to know the cost of our medical care before we buy it.”
On the site, users can select from a range of procedures and then enter their zip code. The search returns a list of in-state hospitals that perform the specified procedure and are located within 100 miles. A search for “abdominal MRI scan” using the Charleston zip code 25312 returned 17 results listed in order of cost. The cheapest, Logan Regional Medical Center, listed the cost of the procedure at $1,393. In contrast, Charleston Area Medical Center listed the cost of an abdominal MRI at $2,954 — a difference of $1,561.
“The costs have become unbearable to patients,” Hennessey said. “I’ve gone from the minority to the majority of my patients having high-deductible insurance, and consequently, higher out-of-pocket expenses, and they want to know what things cost.”
Hennessey said he’s listed all of his practice’s prices on the website. “[My partner] and I aren’t hypocrites,” he said. “I didn’t want to keep talking about money in my office. Your health is priceless.”
Hennessey obtained the data for each hospital through public disclosures, and “translated them from medical speak to English.” He hopes to expand the portal to other states, and in the meantime, is encouraging private physicians and other small health-care providers to offer their prices to the site to make it even more competitive.
“I want everybody invited to the dance, but in general, all of those entities that aren’t hospitals have lower-cost medical care,” he said. “I think they would welcome the opportunity to compete.”
Austin Vaught, co-founder of Fly A Site, the company that created the Pratter Portal, said that although the basic workings of the site are similar to projects Fly A Site has done in the past, the concept of applying consumer price comparison to health care is something he’s proud to be a part of.
“The ultimate goal would be to open up a portal where we could allow hospital administrators to submit those costs and grow the database organically,” Vaught said. “It’s more exciting for us, because something like this doesn’t really exist … There’s never been any real ground made in medical cost transparency before.”
Vaught said the site is still a work in progress, and he hopes Fly A Site will be able to expand its search capabilities based on user feedback.
“As for future ways to search, I think we’re going to expand on the location search, so that people will actually be able to search by city or state name or address,” Vaught said. “Actually being able to see the distance between the user’s home and the hospital is something we’re probably going to look into for the future, and searching by hospital name is something we’re working on for the second phase, as well.”
Reach Lydia Nuzum at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5189 or follow @lydianuzum on Twitter.