Helping make the health care system work for you

California unveils web tool to help consumers shop for health care

Health Care Costs

Photo by 401(K) 2012 via Flickr Creative Commons

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.

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Take a selfie with your doctor, then ask about costs

Rebecca Plevin/KPCC

Take a selfie with your doctor. Once you've broken the ice, ask the awkward but critical questions about the cost of your care.

"How much is that going to cost me?"

That's the question we've been encouraging people to ask their doctors. It's part of an initiative that we're calling #JustAsk.

We understand that this is an awkward conversation to bring up with your doctor or his staff.

Most of us have little experience with this line of questioning: Traditionally, if people had insurance, they had pretty good insurance. They were more shielded from the costs of care, so they didn't need to ask these questions. But these days, more of us have higher deductibles, so price matters to us.

Doctors, meanwhile, were never taught to consider the cost of care. That's changing, as I recently reported. But given the intricacies of insurance, it's still really hard for doctors to know what a specific procedure will cost a particular patient.

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When is it OK to record your doctor's orders?

cell phone audio recording

Erika Aguilar/KPCC

Jonathan Sommers didn't use his cell phone to record the moment when his doctor diagnosed him with testicular cancer in 2012.

He was 28 years old and had so many questions, but was too confused to process anything the doctor had just told him. He remembers going home after that first appointment and feeling overwhelmed.

After that, he recorded virtually every other significant appointment.

He says he would ask his doctor if it was OK to record their conversation that day, especially when it pertained to "new news, or treatment options, or different therapies that we wanted to discuss."

He was also sure to record when he was asking the doctor specific questions.

"That was really the most important part for me was when there were questions that I wanted the answer to," says Sommers, who's now 32 and cured of the cancer. "I would record it because a lot of the times, when you hear the answer, you need to let it marinate in your brain for a bit."

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Bill watch: 2 bills aim to limit out-of-pocket costs

Pink Piggy Bank On Top Of A Pile Of One Dollar Bills

kenteegardin via Flickr Creative Commons

Feel free to use this image, just link to www.SeniorLiving.Org

There are a lot of reasons that people get hit with daunting medical bills. But here are two I hear frequently:

  • #SurpriseBills: People are being charged the out-of-network rate to see doctors they thought were in their insurance network.
  • People who are covered under a family plan have to reach a family deductible – instead of an individual deductible – before their insurance coverage kicks in.

Two bills moving through Sacramento are trying to address both of these situations. The bills passed the Assembly and are awaiting votes on the Senate floor. If they pass the Senate, they'll return to the Assembly for final votes on any amendments. All of this must occur before Sept. 11.

Consumer advocates say these bills are urgently needed. Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, says they will protect people from unexpected out-of-pocket costs, which have the ability to destabilize a family's finances.

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Discussing cost could prevent a cancer side effect: Bankruptcy

Courtesy of Lee Tomlinson

Lee Tomlinson was diagnosed with throat cancer three years ago. He's since launched the non-profit Center for More Compassionate Care, where he speaks to medical professionals about the importance of caring for patients' spiritual and emotional needs, as well as their physical ones.

Rebecca Plevin/KPCC

Lee Tomlinson at the wheel in his role as an Uber driver.


When 66-year-old Lee Tomlinson of Westwood was diagnosed with Stage 3 throat cancer three years ago, he says he had one thing on his mind.

"All I cared about was fighting for my life," Tomlinson says. "Nothing else mattered at those moments."

But in hindsight, he says, there was something else he should have considered: The cost of his treatment. 

"You wouldn't walk in and buy a car and have no idea what it costs," Tomlinson explains. "But nobody brought it up."

"We knew we had some insurance, but we didn't know the length, and breadth, we didn't even know what the full treatment was about …  it's a massive amount of information."

High drug costs 'only getting worse'

In reality, doctors don't know exactly how much a drug will cost a particular patient.

But they do know this: The cost of cancer drugs is skyrocketing. Last year, all of the new cancer drugs approved by the FDA were priced above $120,000 per year of use.

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