Clear Health Costs site a great source for self-pay patients

One of the challenges writing a blog like The Self-Pay Patient is that there are so many great medical practices, facilities, companies, organizations, and web sites out there that it’s hard to find the time and space to write about. Occasionally I find a great site that I return to regularly for information and commentary, and after a while I just assume that I have written them up at some point – after all, the site is so fantastic, surely I couldn’t have forgotten to let my readers know about it! When I realize I haven’t actually written them up, it’s palm-to-face time.

That was this morning for me. I’ve been reading the blog at Clear Health Costs for a while, which has great commentary on what health care costs. The last week or so I’ve been reading their great series on mental health costs, which I plan to write up at some point in the near future when it’s complete.

This morning, I wondered whether I’d actually gotten around to writing up the main Clear Health Costs site, which offers information on health care prices. I checked and, nope. Not one mention, other than that their blog is the very first one listed in the blogroll here. Doh!

So, with some embarrassment, I’d like to introduce you to Clear Health Costs. The site provides the cash prices for a wide range of health care services in seven metro areas at present: San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio. 

The site was written up recently in Fast Company, an online business magazine, in an article titled “Clear Health Costs Helps Consumers Determine if Medical Costs will be just Expensive, or Really Expensive.”

Looking to buy a flat screen TV, a new condo, or a nonstop flight to Rio? It’s a snap to comparison shop online for the best deals. But what happens when you’re in the market for a spinal MRI, a vasectomy, or an STD test? Or what about a cardio stress test, a dental cleaning, or a little Botox? More often than not, you’re out of luck.

“This is a marketplace where prices are really sort of hidden,” says Jeanne Pinder, a former staffer at the New York Times and founder and CEO of New-York-based Clear Health Costs, a startup that aims to pierce that veil of secrecy by providing clear information on what stuff costs…

Back in 2007, Pinder had surgery to remove hardware inserted to heal a “catastrophically” broken leg. The bill for anesthesia at the small hospital in Westchester County was $6,000 for a 30-minute procedure, including $1,419 for a generic anti-nausea drug named Ondansetron. “Because it was such a big number in the bill, I did some research and found I could buy the drug for $2.47,” Pinder says…

Pinder’s experience led her to start Clear Health Costs, with an aim towards providing price transparency that would allow people to see what the cost of care would be. Not surprisingly, consumers using her site can save significantly just by comparing prices between providers.

A New York consumer, for instance, might save a bundle by just taking a subway to a different neighborhood. A cardio stress test costs $100 at one location in the Bronx, and $2,504 at another in Elmhurst, Queens. Prices for a vasectomy range from $450 in Yonkers to $3,500 on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. And Lasik eye surgery, which often isn’t covered by insurance, costs from $2,000 to $5,000 in Manhattan.

… The listed rates–which Clear Health Costs collects through their own reporting, as well as crowdsourced information–reflect the cash price you’d pay without insurance because they’re the best way to do an apples-to-apples comparison.

“Cash prices are actionable information,” says Pinder. “I can go to Place A and pay $400 or Place B and pay $600. I won’t get any of the mumbo-jumbo that I usually get about ‘How much will that cost?’–to which the common answer from both provider and payer is ‘We can’t tell you.’”

The site also shows the Medicare reimbursement rates in a region as a benchmark to help guide consumers…

Clear Health Costs is primarily staffed with reporters, who of course are skilled at tracking down information – ideal backgrounds for finding health care prices! There doesn’t seem to be a focus on cash-only or cash-friendly doctors, which is probably a plus because the number of doctors who have abandoned third-party payment or who at least cater to self-pay patients is still low. By providing price information on based on what insurers and real patients are paying, Clear Health Costs fills an important niche in the self-pay health care sector.

The search function for the site is extremely easy to use (not naming names, but I’ve seen a few that are needlessly complicated), asking you to plug in the service or treatment being sought and your state or zip code.

I checked out a few treatments and procedures on my own, using both New York and Texas information. A basic chest x-ray (the subject of my mini-rant on Friday) gives a cash price of $151 at Rochester General Hospital in New York, and also shows that Medicare pays between $22 and $36 for that same service depending on what part of the state it’s performed in. In Texas, the Medicare reimbursement rate ranges from $22 to $24 for the lowest-cost code (71010), and no cash prices are available.

A walk-in visit, presumably for basic primary care, costs between $75 and $351 in New York depending on where you visit (there were also prices of $0 and $20 given at two sites that I assume to be charity care or community health centers – helpful information to be sure, but not necessarily available to all self-pay patients).

In Texas, prices for walk-in visits ranged from $75 to $375. In both states, the providers listed for these prices are mostly urgent care centers and retail health clinics.  

Clear Health Cost is still a young company, and there were some relatively common treatments and procedures for which there were no cash or insurer prices (there’s actually very little information on what insurance companies pay, at least from what I saw). For example, neither Texas nor California had any cash prices for any sort of hernia repairs, and New York had only a single price ($3787, again at Rochester General Hospital). And of course it’s currently only able to provide information in three states, California, New York, and Texas.

But this is fairly typical of these types of sites, all of which are relatively new and still in their early growing stages. Other companies and sites offering similar types of price information also have relatively limited geographic areas and price information at this early stage, including, DocCost, Sprig Health, and MDSave.

As these companies mature, they will become even more valuable sources of health care prices for self-pay patients. And hopefully, I won’t be quite as tardy in reporting on their growth and expansion as I was in this case!

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