New Orleans Recently I read a disturbing and powerful indictment of the cost and provision of health care, An American Sickness: How Health Became Big Business and How You Can Take it Back by former New York Times reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal. In devastating detail, she documented the wide variety of prices for basic and specialized medical procedures and drugs between hospitals in different cities, different countries, and within the same communities. Finishing the book, I couldn’t help but think about whether her work was citizen empowering or would simply be too complex and confusing for regular folks to sort out for themselves, especially when sick and fearful in the face of medical issues.
I am finding some comfort in reading that some local newspapers, including one of my own in New Orleans, The Times-Picayune, have gotten their arms around this problem in a very helpful way, that needs to be replicated everywhere. Working with Clear Health Costs, a new journalism enterprise based in New York City, they developed a tool they call PriceCheck. In a partnership, which also included the local Fox station, they launched with 700 prices from area outfits obtained in an initial survey. Subsequently, readers have crowd sourced another 700 prices from their own inquires and experience. All of that triggered, or perhaps shamed, providers into submitting another 2000 prices for common procedures
Obviously the news sources are heavily promoting their project, as rightly they should, and from the stories they report, it is having an impact.
Powerfully, they are collecting great first-person stories from people who have resisted predatory pricing from their own provider, gone to the online PriceCheck tool at www.NOLA.com/health or www.Fox8live.com/health and done their own comparison shopping to great advantage. One woman faced with an estimate for an MRI that was over $4000 used the tool to cancel that appointment and visit a local clinic for the same examination and only paid $672, saving thousands obviously. She was in good company as others were trying to also hold their providers accountable.
I found it interesting, and disturbing, that almost all of the reporters found almost all of the patients unwilling to reveal their names. Between the line that speaks to a fear of retaliation from medical facilities and professionals or of being black-balled for needed health care. Whatever happened to the dictate of the Hippocratic Oath for doctors to “do no harm?”
Not surprisingly, many institutions were resisting transparency and refusing to share pricing information with either their patients or the public. The privately operated Tulane Medical Center, an HCA facility, which at least used to stand for Hospital Corporation of America, in partnership with Tulane University, was militantly opposed and resisting. The Times-Picayunealso noted that the insurer Blue Cross/ Blue Shield was also resisting.
This is going to be a door-to-door dogfight, and as long as its each family facing off by itself against these huge institutions, the immediate odds are against them, no matter how many stories are in the news. Nonetheless these kinds of tools put bullets in a consumer’s gun, so let’s hope a thousand similar flowers bloom, so that consumers can vote with their feet and force prices to leave the stratosphere and come back to eye level.