Impatient

Helping make the health care system work for you

California unveils web tool to help consumers shop for health care

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This summer, KPCC asked our audience members to share their childbirth costs with us. The effort was part of a project – called #PriceCheck – where we crowdsource the costs of certain medical procedures.

#PriceCheck has allowed us to see the wide variation in charges by hospitals and clinics, as well as in how much insurance covers. We hope that, by bringing transparency to these costs, the database has served as a resource for people who are trying to shop around for medical care.

On Monday, California's Department of Insurance unveiled a similar tool, called California Healthcare Compare. It lets consumers look up the costs of more than 100 medical procedures and conditions in their region. It also cracks a nut that #PriceCheck could not: For certain procedures, like childbirth and colon cancer screening, the website also includes quality information about the hospitals and medical groups providing care.

The website was developed in partnership with the University of California, San Francisco and Consumer Reports, with Affordable Care Act funding.

Introducing the new tool, state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said this price information is "critical," as more people face high deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs when they use their health insurance. 

How it works

Let's say you want to compare the cost of childbirth at different hospitals in Southern California. Using California Healthcare Compare, you select the procedure and enter your zip code.

It will show you various costs: What facilities in the region charged, what insurance companies paid and what insured patients paid. The data are comprised of medical claims from over 11 million patients in California, according to the department of insurance.

These figures provide a "reference point" as you shop for care, Jones explained. But, he added, it's "absolutely essential" to also consider the quality of this care.

So the website also lets you explore how individual hospitals in your region score on various measures, such as avoiding C-section infections, avoiding episiotomies and breastfeeding rates. This quality information is comprised from data from many different governmental and non-governmental agencies, according to the state.

Other options

California Healthcare Compare is not the first site to try to shine a light on the murky world of health care costs.

A number of private and state-run projects around the country let consumers compare the costs of medical care. The state of Maine, for example, has Maine HealthCost, which lists the average cost of specific medical procedures at facilities and hospitals around the state.

As I've mentioned, we've tried doing this through #PriceCheck, in collaboration with KQED and clearhealthcosts.com. Beyond that, there are sites like Healthcare Bluebook and Guroo, to name a few.

California officials, though, say their tool stands out because it marries information on both price and quality.

Let me know how California Healthcare Compare works for you. Share your experience in the comments section below or by sending an e-mail to Impatient@scpr.org.

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