March 26, 2015


What Does the Public Need to Know About Health Care Prices?



Have you ever tried to find out how much a doctor's appointment, medical test or other procedure will cost before getting treatment? If so, you join the 56 percent of Americans who say they have tried to find price information before getting care.

This statistic comes from our newest research, summarized in "How Much Will It Cost? How Americans Use Prices in Health Care." More and more insurance companies, health care providers and private companies are making health care prices more accessible to patients. Several experiments have shown
that giving price information to patients can lead them to choose lower-cost care, help employers and other insurance purchasers save money and even lead providers to reduce their prices
This in turn could help employers and insurance purchasers save money and even lead providers to reduce their prices.

In many ways, this effort makes sense. After all, we regular folks are getting called on to foot a higher proportion of our health care bills out of pocket. It seems fair that we know how much we'll need to pay so we can make informed decisions about our expenses and our care.

Health care price transparency won't be a magic bullet for bringing down health care costs though, and there's some discomfort about the notion of shopping around for health care. Some argue that health care isn't like other consumer goods and patients should not be viewed as consumers or as customers.

In a recent Wall Street Journal column, Drew Altman argued that focusing on data transparency could shield some of the bigger actors, like insurers, from accountability for fixing the problem of rising health care costs.

And the public expresses uncertainty about the idea of shopping around for health care as well. In our survey, 43 percent of Americans say it's unreasonable for patients to compare costs before getting care .

Still, with so many Americans saying they sought prices, price transparency is a trend the public seems amenable to. As efforts to boost the transparency of health care prices continue, we argue that they must keep the needs of patients at the forefront.

Our report includes some considerations for policymakers, insurers, employers and providers to consider the needs of patients as they work to expand price transparency: 

    • Strengthen the capacity of providers, staff and insurance companies to provide price information. These are the sources people say they have turned to most for price information.
    • Help patients understand that health care prices vary. 57 percent of insured and 47 percent of uninsured Americans are not aware that physicians might actually charge different prices for the same services. 
    • Help people understand how to find price information. Most Americans who have never sought price information would like to do so, but 50 percent say they do not know how.
    • Focus on those who are caregivers for family members or who are receiving regular care. These are the individuals most likely to have compared prices in our research.
    • Recognize the challenges. Some people are comfortable with their providers and do not want to switch even if they could save money. Others live in areas where they feel their choice of providers is limited. And, as we mentioned, Americans are divided on whether or not it is reasonable for patients to compare prices before getting care. Comparing prices may not be viable in all situations.
So, have you tried to find out how much a doctor's appointment, medical test or other procedure will cost before getting treatment? Let us know how it went. Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #HCpricetransparency.

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Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization that helps diverse leaders and citizens navigate divisive, complex issues. Through nonpartisan research and engagement, it provides people with the insights and support they need to arrive at workable solutions on critical issues, regardless of their differences. Since 1975, Public Agenda has helped foster progress on K-12 and higher education reform, health care, federal and local budgets, energy and immigration. Find Public Agenda online at

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