Need an MRI or a knee replacement? As the old song says, “You better shop around,” because it could save you a lot of money on medical procedures.

The problem is that, today, shopping to get the best deal for your medical procedure is far from ideal. In fact, it’s nearly impossible.

If it were up to me, healthcare shopping would not be up to the individual. Who likes to research costs for medical tests anyway? Who even likes going to the doctor? Yet, today, shopping is a necessary experience because patients in America are increasingly paying more out-of-pocket. Medical debt is a huge problem as medical bills eat into our savings and paychecks. Out-of-pocket costs for patients are soaring. Since 2010, insurance deductibles for workers have risen three times as fast as premiums and about seven times as fast as wages and inflation. Unfortunately, in an overwhelming majority of states, patients cannot readily access the costs of routine procedures for patients to save money and avoid getting ripped-off.

Public Citizen road-tested state consumer websites to determine just how easy—or difficult—it is for consumers to obtain basic information about healthcare costs. Public Citizen sought cost information for five common medical tests and procedures: a colonoscopy, a computerized tomography (CT) scan of the head, hernia repair, knee replacement, and a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain.

 

The results were not encouraging

Public Citizen found that 44 states provide no information or incomplete information, so as to render a search for costs useless or inconclusive. Nearly 20 states have tried to track healthcare payments to help their consumers and researchers better understand the costs of basic medical procedures. At this time, those efforts are not helping patients. Only six states make the data available to patients online, and that information usually is uneven, outdated, difficult to navigate, or unavailable. Those six states are California, Colorado, Maine, New Hampshire, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Public Citizen found that New Hampshire and Maine’s consumer shopping websites lead the pack. Maine is even attempting to provide quality information so that consumers can understand both cost and quality of their medical tests and procedures they are increasingly having to pay more for out-of-pocket. The other four states, however, still have a long way to go to enhance shopping for patients.

 

Uninsured patients

Further, we found consumer websites have to do a better job improving the online experience for uninsured patients trying to understand their costs. The uninsured are often exposed to higher costs for their procedures and also see the most price variance for their care. They don’t have insurance companies negotiating down procedure prices on their behalf. And while a record number of Americans are now insured, America is still far from ensuring that healthcare is a right and not a privilege. That’s why it’s imperative that these state websites provide our uninsured essential sticker cost information so that they won’t get fleeced.

All told, it’s clear that states have a long way to go to provide adequate information for consumers to understand their out-of-pocket healthcare costs. Shopping around can most definitely save money on medical procedures for patients, but not if they can’t find out how much their basic care and treatments cost.

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