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Consumers want price transparency but obstacles remain


A majority of Americans have compared prices before getting care and most want to do so, but access is still a barrier.

A majority of Americans  (56%) have already sought out price information before getting care, and 21% of that total believe doing so saved them money, according to a survey by Public Agenda.

In addition, 76% of respondents say price comparison influenced their choice of a provider and 82% say they will compare prices again in the future.

Americans also seem open to choosing better-value care: 71% say higher prices don't mean better-quality medical care.

“Given their interest in reducing the cost of health benefits, managed care executives will be interested to know that price transparency seems like one viable approach to realizing cost reduction,” says David Schleifer, senior research associate and one of the authors of the report. “They may also find it encouraging that the majority of Americans do not equate cost with quality.

“Furthermore, they'll likely be interested in knowing who compares prices and how to encourage more people to do so,” Schleifer continues. “People with higher deductibles are more likely than other Americans to have sought price information generally-this includes price comparers and individuals who looked up prices from just one provider. People who have compared prices across providers are more likely than other Americans to be making healthcare decisions for an adult family member or to be receiving regular medical treatment. The report concludes with implications for stakeholders, included managed care executives, who are interested in engaging more Americans in comparing prices and choosing better-value care.”

Advocates of price transparency say it can help consumers save money and lower system costs, and efforts to make healthcare prices and costs transparent are growing. In 2013, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services began releasing prices for procedures at thousands of U.S. hospitals. At the state level, transparency legislation has been enacted or proposed in Massachusetts, New Mexico (proposed) and Oregon (proposed).  And resources and apps that contain price transparency information tools have been made available by non-profits, for-profits and government entities.

Among people who have never sought price information for medical services before getting care, 57% say they would be interested in obtaining this information, and 43% say they would choose a less-expensive physician if they knew prices in advance. But obstacles remain: Many Americans are not aware prices vary between providers, and this may keep them from comparing prices or looking for less-expensive providers when they are quoted a price that they cannot afford. Additionally, 50% of those who have never checked healthcare prices are unsure of how to do so, and 43% of all Americans say it's unreasonable to expect people to compare prices before getting care. 

Providers, insurers, policymakers and other key stakeholders must be aware of the red flags these findings raise, according to Schleifer. “Shopping around for better healthcare prices is not viable in all situations, and encouraging people to do so must be part of a larger effort to reduce the prices and costs of healthcare in the United States,” he says.

Public Agenda does not advocate for or against price transparency. The research was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and findings are based on a nationally representative survey of 2,010 adults conducted in 2014, along with focus groups and follow-up interviews.

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