Can You Really Shop for Your Health Care? New Self-Service Cost Estimator Tools Introduced

Have you ever wanted to know the price of your medical care before you went to the hospital?

El Camino Hospital, located in California’s Silicon Valley, is providing a game-changing online tool for patients seeking those answers. The hospital launched this tool in an effort to help people get reliable estimates for their medical services without the sticker shock after it’s too late. This self-service tool went public in May 2017, after a trial-run version began with the hospital’s billing staff.

Consumers can find the answers they need in a few simple steps: select the medical service they’re seeking, enter their health insurance information, and receive a price estimate that the hospital claims is 95-99% accurate.

However, El Camino isn’t the only hospital to jump on the self-service cost estimator train. St. Clair Hospital in Mt. Lebanon is also offering the same online calculator to their potential patients to help prevent any surprise costs. “St. Clair is the first hospital in the region to introduce the cost estimator, which determines deductibles, co-pays and co-insurance costs for 105 of the most common tests and medical procedures based on the patient’s health insurance plan.” We shouldn’t be surprised that with a simple Google search, we find that many hospitals and providers themselves are now offering this tool in efforts to take a step towards price transparency with patients.

 Modern Healthcarereports that, “Now, more providers want to offer self-service cost estimators on their websites. That’s because they’re experiencing strong demand from patients in high-deductible health plans who want to shop around and know their financial exposure in advance. When patients understand how much they’ll owe, that can improve the collection process and reduce uncompensated care, hospital leaders say.”

Unexpected large bills are commonly a complaint amongst those in the cancer community and understandably, more and more individuals are advocating for an easy-to-use tool such as these calculators to help prevent surprise costs. With the rising number of hospitals offering similar tools, consumers are also recognizing that providers can and shouldoffer these price-estimates. Whereas a tool like this would have been unheard of or far too costly years ago, now it’s a possibility that can become a reality with many providers. However, are these price estimators truly effective?

In 2015, Beckers Hospital Review reported that a man went through his provider’s online calculator, United Health Care, and was misquoted $500 for an MRI that turned out to cost $2400 after finding out the hospital had updated their equipment and raised the prices. Do the mishaps with price estimates, like this one, outweigh the positiveimpacts hospital and provider online calculators might have on patients, like saving them money when the tools are successful?

Senior Vice President of Experian, Merideth Wilson states that, “Offering an online price estimator is a marketing advantage for hospitals and medical groups that want to be transparent with patients.” Experian charges clients a one-time implementation fee and a monthly maintenance fee based on patient visit volume. “Our customers say it helps with consumer satisfaction, bringing patients back, and bringing more patients in,” Modern Healthcare reports.

While price-estimate calculators are helpful for patients looking to see how much a hospital visit might cost them, there are a variety of tools that individuals can look at to gain clarity on other financial issues, like health insurance problems, including www.CancerFinances.org. This Toolkit is designed to help you understand how a cancer diagnosis may impact your finances and guides you to valuable information and resources.

Do you think a price-estimate calculator from your provider or local hospital would be helpful? Do you believe the price estimate would be accurate? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

Samantha Skelton
ss@triagecancer.org