(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

Update June 30: Early PriceCheck data show Bay Area mammogram prices range from $125 to $801

Original Post:

Say you’re shopping for a new computer or a new car, and you want to get the best price. Within a matter of minutes on Google, you would have a pretty good idea of the price range for the product you want.

But in health care? Forget it.

It’s well known to health policy types, but less so to consumers, that health care prices are utterly lacking in transparency and wildly variable.

If you’ve ever looked at a bill for a health care procedure — and been astounded by the numbers you see — or thought that you would like to find the best price on an elective procedure — and been astounded that there’s no easy way to compare prices — KQED is launching a new project for you.

Today we bring you “Price Check,” a community-created guide to health costs. Since no database yet exists where consumers can easily look up costs, we’re commencing the work of creating one. But we need your help.

This summer and into the fall, we’re turning to you, our community, to share — anonymously — what you have paid for some common procedures. We’re starting with mammograms. (More on “why mammograms?” in a moment.)

We’ve created a tool to make it easy to share what you paid. Visit the tool and take a look. If you don’t have insurance and pay out of pocket — called self-pay — you can enter that price. If you have insurance, you can submit both what your health insurance paid and your own co-pay charge, if any.

Once you’ve shared your costs, the tool will feed your information into a database so you can see how much mammograms cost elsewhere in the Bay Area and across California. Again, your submitted data are anonymous and confidential.

We want this project to have as much impact as possible, so we have teamed up with KPCC, our public radio friends in Southern California, and ClearHealthCosts.com, a New York City startup working to bring transparency to the health care marketplace.

We chose to start with mammograms, because it is a screening test that many women have at least every other year. Because it is a test that can be scheduled, women could, in theory, shop around for the best price. Yes, mammograms are covered as a preventive benefit under the Affordable Care Act, and patients are supposed to access them at no co-pay, but that doesn’t always happen.

ClearHealthCosts did a pilot version of this project with WNYC public radio in New York in 2012. They found that 25-30 percent of the 400 respondents were paying for their mammograms. That’s because some of the women chose out-of-network providers, or they weren’t insured, or the mammogram simply wasn’t covered.

We’ll be able to compare California data with what ClearHealthCosts learned with WNYC — where women paid between $0 and $1,100 or more.

In other sectors of the economy, people often equate higher cost with higher quality, but in health care there’s not a correlation between price and quality. We think people want quality care at a fair price. But just as there is little transparency in health costs, there are few good measures of quality. We believe that shining a bright light on health costs helps to drive discussion about quality metrics.

We’re just at the start of this project. Over the next four months, we’ll sample other common procedures. We’re grateful to the Knight Foundation for funding this project through a Prototype Fund grant.

Please join us! We’ll report what you share with us as soon as we have stories to tell.

KQED Launches ‘PriceCheck’ to Make Health Costs Transparent 4 September,2014Lisa Aliferis

  • HealthAdvocate

    check out FAIR HEALTH which is a national database of charges for procedures from all kinds of providers and all kinds of procedures. Also, the HCCI is launching a nationwide datahouse for consumer price comparisons and takes data from four of the largest health insurers in the nation. It’s not exactly accurate to say that there is no database where customers can look up prices – and almost all health insurers can give you the price ahead of time for the provider you are looking to get services from. So just call them – that is pretty easy.

    • Thanks for letting us know about Fair Health! We’re trying to do something related, yet different. Your search returns an estimated cost in a zip code/region. We’re trying show provider-specific costs and cost variation, even within a narrow region, as well as statewide. We welcome you to join the Facebook group we have created to bring people together who want to engage and discuss this critical issue. Please consider joining. Here’s the link: https://www.facebook.com/groups/healthcosts/

  • Maggie

    Don’t you want the price the hospital charged as well as what the insurer actually paid?


Lisa Aliferis

Lisa Aliferis is the founding editor of KQED’s State of Health blog. Since 2011, she’s been writing and editing stories for the site. Before taking up blogging, she toiled for many years (more than we can count) producing health stories for television, including Dateline NBC and San Francisco’s CBS affiliate, KPIX-TV. She also wrote up a handy guide to the Affordable Care Act, especially for Californians. Her work has been honored for many awards. Most recently she was a finalist for “Best Topical Reporting” from the Online News Association. You can follow her on Twitter: @laliferis

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