New health plans make shopping for care important

By Michelle Singletary, The Washington Post - Nov. 26, 2006

WASHINGTON - As much as many consumers hate shopping for cars, that's nothing compared with trying to price out a medical procedure or a routine visit to the doctor. There's really no reason you shouldn't get the best deal on a car. There are many resources available with up-to-date dollar figures on how much it costs to buy a certain model and anything in it. You can find the price of a high-tech navigational system or an engine-block heater, whatever that is, which, by the way, costs $42 (invoice) on a 2007 Buick LaCrosse. But try finding out the cost for a knee repair or giving birth by a Caesarean section. More people probably know the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden than the average cost of health services. In fact, one consumer health-care survey found that the typical consumer could predict the price of a Honda Accord to within $1,000, but was off by about $12,000 in estimating the average cost of a four-day hospital stay. People guessed an average of $7,762. The cost is $20,000. When it came to the cost of a routine doctor's office visit, respondents guessed an average of $95, according to a survey conducted by Harris Interactive for employee benefits provider Great-West Healthcare. The actual average cost for a doctor's visit? It was $200. For emergency-room visits respondents estimated $680. The cost was lower, $400. Motivation to know According to the survey, more than half of those who responded did not know the cost of treatment until it was received (68 percent), and 11 percent said they never found out the cost. Many people fortunate enough to be covered by a employer health plan haven't been paying attention to health costs because we counted on our health-insurance carrier to negotiate the price. We pay our annual premiums and, if required, fork over our co-payments and let the insurers deal with the rest of the bill. But increasingly, workers are being pushed into consumer-directed health plans that are supposed to encourage people to look for lower-cost medical services. These plans often come with high deductibles, meaning that more employees will have to pay larger amounts out of pocket before benefits kick in. And this means more people will need to know what their medical services cost to determine if it's worth switching to a consumer-driven plan. But where do you get that information on medical costs? It's not like there's a handy dandy price guide sold in bookstores. To determine what you will pay, you'll have to do some research, and perhaps pay for the pricing information. Where to find it So before you decide which health plan, try the following resources: .

 Humana Inc., in partnership with advocacy group Consumer Action, has created a free Web site (www.familyhealthbudget.com) that includes a family health budget planner. The site was developed in response to a survey commissioned by Humana and conducted by Harris Interactive that found two out of three respondents said they needed help budgeting for health care. On the site you will find a number of tools to help you choose the best health-care plan and benefits. .

 WageWorks Inc. (www.wageworks.com), a provider of consumer-driven tax-advantaged spending accounts for health and dependent care, has a health-care flexible-spending account or FSA calculator. An FSA lets you set aside a certain amount of money before taxes to pay for qualified medical expenses. The calculator helps you figure out if this type of account is right for you. .

eHealthInsurance (www.ehealthinsurance.com) is a good source for people not covered by an employee health plan and who need to buy their own insurance. On this site you'll find a large selection of health plans and the ability to compare costs. . www.HealthDecisions.org will give you information on 1,300 health plans and tens of thousands of agents and brokers nationwide. .

HealthGrades Inc. (www.healthgrades.com) is a health care ratings company based in Golden, Colo., that sells reports on the cost of 55 medical procedures, based on regional averages of payments made by health plans. .

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., NW., Washington, DC 20071. Her e-mail address is singletarym@washpost.com Breach of confidentiality & accidental breach of confidentiality This email and any files transmitted with it are confidential and intended solely for the use of the named addressee(s). If you received this email in error, please notify the author/sender.

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