Medical inflation slows because of self-pay healthcare?

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article today about the recent slowdown in medical inflation, with the cost of healthcare rising more slowly in recent years than in the past. Of interest to readers here is that the article cites several people engaged as self-pay patients to explain why, at least in part, healthcare costs are slowing compared to past increases.

Medical-Price Inflation Is at Its Slowest  Pace in 50 Years

Medical prices are rising at their slowest pace in a half century, a shift in the health-care industry that could provide relief to government and businesses’ budgets while also signaling consumers are being left with a larger share of the bill.

The prices paid for medical care in July rose just 1% from a year earlier, the slowest annual rate of growth since the early 1960s, according to Commerce Department data…

The story cites three specific examples of self-pay patients saving money, and therefore contributing to the low rate of medical inflation: 

Sara Boehm, 32, of Santa Monica, Calif., began comparison-shopping for prescription drugs using an app on her phone after she took a job at a startup company. She recently saved $300 on medicine she needed for a trip to Tanzania. “I use Amazon to comparison-shop for televisions and laptops—I should at least be putting in as much effort for health care,” she said.

As you may recall, a few weeks ago I wrote about several apps designed to help shop for the lowest prices on prescription drugs.

Another self-pay patient mention in the article:

At the same time price growth is slowing, consumers are being asked to pay a greater share. A PriceWaterhouseCoopers survey released in June found that 17% of employers now offer high-deductible plans as their only option, up from 13% in 2012. Those plans typically require patients to use health savings accounts to pay the first several thousand dollars of costs.

David Flannery of Nashua, N.H., had to switch to such a plan offered by his wife’s employer after he lost his job as a video producer. That was costly because Mr. Flannery, 44, has multiple sclerosis.

By comparing prices on the Internet, Mr. Flannery found he could save more than $1,000 on an MRI if he traveled 50 miles to Boston or Worcester, Mass. “It’s a huge deal when your family goes from paying $200 to $600 for an X-ray,” Mr. Flannery said. “It means we eat pizza this month instead of going out to dinner.”

Yesterday’s post here at The Self-Pay Patient was actually about Save On Medical, an online service that allows people to shop for better prices on imaging services like MRIs.

Finally, the article cited the case of CALPers, the California public employee retirement system, to limit the amount they would pay towards hip- and knee-replacement surgery, reported on here at The Self-Pay Patient earlier this month.

The California Public Employees’ Retirement System, which provides health coverage to 1.3 million active and retired workers, found prices hospitals charge for elective knee and hip replacement could range from $15,000 to $110,000. The system now offers members a choice: Have your procedure at one of 51 hospitals that agreed to limit what they charge, or have the surgery elsewhere and pay any expenses above $30,000 out of pocket.

In the program’s first year, the cost per surgery declined 19%, and patient outcomes were as good or better, according to Calpers.

Self-pay patients probably can’t take all of the credit for slowing medical inflation, as the article also cites other factors including the recession and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare. But it should be obvious that when patients shop for care with their own dollars on the line, they can help to restrain healthcare costs for the entire country without undermining the quality or accessibility of care. And that can only be good news for everyone.

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