Health insurers pull back the curtain on pricing

A health-care reform specialist helps people select insurance plans at an Affordable Care Act Enrollment Fair at California's Pasadena City College in 2013.

A health-care reform specialist helps people select insurance plans at an Affordable Care Act Enrollment Fair at California's Pasadena City College in 2013.

A website launching early next year might help you decide whether you can afford to swap out your bum knee. A group called the Health Care Cost Institute will publish information on the price and quality of medical services, courtesy of data from insurance giants UnitedHealth Group, Aetna, and Humana.

"The ideal scenario is that it almost gives you an active stock ticker of what conditions are moving in what direction and their cost," says Steve Parente, the governing chair of the Health Care Cost Institute and a professor of health finance and insurance at the University of Minnesota.

Parente says price information is more critical to consumers than ever as out of of pocket medical costs continue to soar.

If consumers, armed with price information, decide to avoid excessively costly procedures, that helps insurers, too; they can hold down costs more easily.

"It's really a way, at the highest level, to create a more efficient system with an informed consumer at the center of it," Tom Beauregard, an executive vice president of UnitedHealth Group, says of the Health Care Cost Insitute's forthcoming website.

Nicholas Bagley, assistant professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School, says consumers don't necessarily act any differently when offered publicly available information about the quality of health care providers.

"But it's possible, given the new high-deductible environment for health insurance," he says, "that they'll pay more attention to price information."

About the author

Annie Baxter is a reporter covering agriculture and food for Marketplace.

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