If Americans Could Shop Around For Their Medical Care, They Might Choose Less Expensive Hospitals

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Giving Americans more access to online tools and apps that give them detailed information on the cost and quality of various hospitals and the services they provide could help consumers make more prudent decisions about where to seek medical care, according to a new analysis by the nonprofit group Catalyst for Payment Reform (CPR).

Although many contemporary apps and health care websites list top-line prices, this information isn’t actually enough for the purposes of picking a hospital that gives patients the most bang for their buck.

“Most tools today allow consumers to view some version of a side-by-side comparison. When information about provider price and quality is presented in an easy-to-read format on a single screen, the consumer can more readily select the highest-quality provider at the lowest cost,” wrote the researchers.

Without knowing the quality of care that different hospitals provide alongside their costs, Americans might be tempted to choose pricier products under the demonstrably false assumption that higher price equals higher quality in American health care.

The study authors also note that policy changes are necessary to facilitate the kind of price transparency that Americans need to make more fiscally sound choices, since “gag orders in insurance agreements” and “weak state laws” may prevent that information from becoming public.

At least one state has recently taken action on this front. In August, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed a law requiring the state’s hospitals to disclose the top-line prices for the 140 most common medical procedures, as well as how much the uninsured, Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries, and residents covered by the five most popular insurance companies in the state must pay on average for those procedures. Combining that information with quality metrics, as the CPR researchers suggest, might have a tangible effect on the Tar Heel State’s health care spending.