Insurers Expanding Public Access to Medical Cost Information

Shopping for information about the cost and quality of medical care is becoming easier for patients as health insurers compete to become more consumer-friendly.

Insurers are coming up with new ways to provide price and service information to customers who are being called on to take more responsibility for their health insurance.

Aetna Inc. announced last week that as of Aug. 18, it will provide online access to physician costs, clinical quality and efficiency information in Connecticut, six other states and Washington, D.C. Price information will be available in four other states.

The information will be available to all Aetna members. But the new information will be particularly useful to consumers with high-deductible health plans tied to health savings accounts or health reimbursement arrangements.

“While purchasing health care is a much different decision than buying a house or a car, we firmly believe that consumers should ultimately have access to exactly what they’re demanding _ the same kind of objective cost and quality information that is readily available when making other significant purchases,” Ronald Williams, chief executive and president of Aetna, said in a statement.

Aetna launched a price transparency program in August 2005, allowing consumers to research physician pricing before treatment. Between 600 and 1,000 consumers a month have since accessed the information for about 5,000 physicians and physician groups in the Cincinnati area.

With the expansion in August of this year, information on clinical quality and efficiency will be available for nearly 15,000 specialist physicians. Specific pricing will be available for more than 70,000 physicians.

Doctors’ pricing would cover 30 procedures by each physician, with a total of 800 procedures when accounting for various physician specialties.

Grace-Marie Turner, president of the Galen Institute, a research organization focusing on health and tax policy in Washington, endorsed the Aetna plan.

“Consumerism is something taking hold not just in this country, but in Europe,” she said. “They’re seeing that more information is out there to help them make decisions. You can’t have one-sixth of our economy operate on a different level than the rest of our economy.”

Humana Inc., based in Louisville, Ky., offers Web-based consumer pricing. Minneapolis-based UnitedHealth Group provides information on quality and costs for doctors, hospitals, dental care and pharmacies.

Quality is gauged in consultation with expert groups, said Daryl Richard, a spokesman for UnitedHealth Group.

Philadelphia-based Cigna announced in April that it will provide online health care cost and quality information, including cost data about outpatient surgery procedures and radiology services. The information will be provided initially in New Hampshire and Wichita, Kan.

And Medicare earlier this month published what it pays for 30 common procedures and reported how frequently hospitals perform the procedures.

The release of the information fits with the Bush administration’s strategy of moving more people into health savings accounts and high-deductible insurance policies. Such insurance policies require people to bear more of the initial medical expenses.

Bush administration officials say that as more people buy such policies, cost increases would slow because consumers would do more to seek the best deal or decide against a medical service.

Merrill Matthews, director of the Council for Affordable Health Insurance, a research and advocacy group in Alexandria, Va., welcomed Aetna’s move.

“The problem we’ve had in the past is if you had managed care with a $20 copay or traditional HMO, there’s really very little incentive to care what the price is,” he said.

In addition, because the price is negotiated between the insurance company and provider, consumers traditionally have difficulty finding the price for various services, he said.