How much will my health care really cost? Now, you can find out

Have you ever tried to find out what a health care service will cost before you get it? How much will you have to pay, say, for an MRI, a mammogram, or a colonoscopy? Good luck.

If you are fortunate enough to have good insurance, it may not matter. A small co-pay may be all you owe. But if you are paying on your own because you have a large deductible, or don’t have any coverage at all, the answer could set you back thousands of dollars.

Unlike almost everything else you buy, price information for health care is usually difficult or impossible to obtain. The Government Accountability Office recently described the striking lack of price transparency that baffles many American patients.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could see the price of a health care service beforehand so you could shop around for the best deal - as you can for a car or a TV? Well, for some services, now you can.

Several websites list prices for health care services by region. One of the most helpful, Clearhealthcosts.com, uses crowdsourcing and database research to include actual prices that patients report having paid and providers report having collected, and it just launched a site for Philadelphia.

Clearhealthcosts.com began in New York and publishes prices for hundreds of health care services. Before launching its site here, it had expanded to San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Links to Clearhealthcosts.com’s price tool can be found on the websites of National Public Radio stations in each market. In Philadelphia, a link is on the Newsworks page of WHYY.org. (You can also find it by clicking here.)

The listings should be enough to make you gasp. Prices can vary by as much as four or five times for the same service with no apparent rhyme or reason. The most expensive providers are not necessarily the best. A colonoscopy can cost as little as $755 in Bryn Mawr and as much as $7,924.50 in Doylestown - clear reason, if you needed one, to shop around.

The founder and CEO of Clearhealthcosts.com, Jeanne Pinder, is a former New York Times reporter who wanted to use her journalistic experience to shed light on one of health care’s darkest corners. “We are journalists,” she said. “Our view is that if we make price transparent, then people will be able to make rational choices as they can in any other realm.”

To call American health care pricing convoluted would be an understatement. Take this experience by one visitor to the Clearhealthcosts.com Philadelphia website - “I don’t want to let this drop. This really ticks me off. I want to find out why the bill for a procedure my husband has had the past five years is suddenly almost ten times what it had been.” (For more stories of patients caught in the health care billing maze, click here.)

Among the other websites that list health care prices are HealthCare Blue Book, which estimates the fair market value of various services, and Pricing HealthCare, which lists prices submitted by participating facilities. However, neither of them includes information based on actual patient reports.

America has the most expensive health care system in world. We all pay the price in higher insurance premiums and higher taxes. Many people also pay for our overpriced system out of their own pockets in large unexpected charges from providers. With the new tools for comparison shopping, you can reduce your chance of becoming one of them.

In health care as in almost everything else, let the buyer beware.

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