Historically, the health care system has not made it easy for people to find out how much their care will cost them out of pocket. Recently, insurers, state governments, employers and other entities have been trying to make health care price information more easily available to individuals and families. Although these price transparency efforts are new, we know from previous research that many Americans have tried to find price information before getting care. This new research reveals that Americans are still searching for price information, but obstacles remain to helping them find the information that can help them save money.

Public Agenda, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the New York State Health Foundation, set out to explore how Americans are trying to find and use health care price information and how residents of four states—New York, New Hampshire, Florida and Texas—are doing so.

Findings and implications are summarized below. You can download a PDF of the full report here and a research brief here.

MAIN FINDINGS

Finding 1: Half of Americans have tried to find price information before getting care. People who have to pay more out of pocket are more likely to have tried to find price information.

  • 50 percent of Americans have tried to find out before getting care how much they would have to pay out of pocket, not including copays, and/or how much their insurers would pay.
  • Higher percentages of Texas, Florida and New Hampshire residents have tried to find price information and have tried to compare prices than New York State residents and Americans overall.

Finding 2: Only some Americans have tried to compare prices. Of those who have tried to compare prices, more than half say they saved money.

  • 20 percent of Americans have tried to compare prices across multiple providers before getting care.
  • About one in three Americans—28 percent—have tried to find out a single provider’s price rather than comparing. Larger percentages of Texas, Florida and New Hampshire residents have tried to compare prices.

Finding 3: Most Americans do not think prices are a sign of quality in health care. Of those who have tried to compare prices, most have chosen less expensive care.

  • Using four different questions, we found most Americans understand that health care price and quality are not associated. Seventy percent of Americans say, for example, that higher prices are not typically a sign of better medical care. This is similar to what we found in New York State, Texas, Florida and New Hampshire.
  • 59 percent of Americans who have tried to compare prices say they chose a less expensive doctor, hospital, medical test or treatment.
  • Among people who have not ever tried to find price information before getting care, 40 percent indicate they would be inclined to choose less expensive doctors if they knew prices in advance. However, 43 percent of them would not be inclined to do so, and 17 percent don’t know.

Finding 4: Americans turn to friends, relatives and colleagues; insurance companies; doctors; and receptionists when they try to find price information.

  • In our national survey, 17 percent of residents of states with state-administered price information websites indicate they have heard of the names of their states’ websites. Seven percent of people in those states who have tried to find price information say they have used their states’ websites.

Finding 5: Potential barriers to increasing the use of price information by Americans include limited awareness of price variation and uncertainty about how to find price information.

  • Over half—56 percent—of Americans either believe doctors charge pretty much the same prices for the same services (37 percent) or they say they don’t know (19 percent). And 55 percent either believe hospitals charge pretty much the same prices for the same services (32 percent) or they say they don’t know (23 percent).
  • 57 percent of Americans who have not tried to find price information before getting care indicate they would like to know the prices of medical services in advance. However, 51 percent of them indicate they are not sure how to do so.

Finding 6: Americans want to know more about health care prices.

  • 63 percent say there is not enough information about how much medical services cost, 23 percent say there is enough information, and nearly 13 percent do not know. This finding is similar in New York State, Texas, Florida and New Hampshire.
  • 70 percent of Americans think it is a good idea for doctors and their staffs to discuss prices with patients before ordering or doing tests or procedures or referring them to specialists. However, only 28 percent say a doctor or their staff has brought up price in conversation with them.
  • 80 percent of Americans think it is important for their state governments to provide people with information that allows them to compare prices before getting care.

IMPLICATIONS

Efforts which aim to help the health care system work better by making prices more transparent should be informed by and responsive to the perspectives and needs of the American public. Based on these findings, Public Agenda outlines the following implications and questions for policymakers, insurers, employers and providers, as well as for-profit and nonprofit price information providers, to consider.

  1. Help people compare prices to help them save money.
  2. Direct price transparency efforts toward people who face high out-of-pocket costs
  3. and toward those whose insurance coverage is unstable.
  4. Recognize the diversity of sources people use to try to find price information.
  5. Equip medical professionals and their staffs to discuss prices with patients or to refer patients to reliable sources of price information.
  6. Employers should find ways to build trust with more of their employees.
  7. States should consider a range of ways to make price information more transparent.
  8. Support further exploration of variations among states in how people find and use price information.

METHODOLOGY IN BRIEF

This brief summarizes findings from a nationally representative survey of 2,062 U.S. adults ages 18 and older and representative surveys of 808 adults in Texas, 802 adults in New York State, 819 adults in Florida and 826 adults in New Hampshire. Interviews were conducted from July through September 2016. Respondents could choose to complete the survey in English or Spanish. Data for both surveys were collected through 40 percent phone interviews, including cell phones, and 60 percent online surveys.

Support for this report was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the New York State Health Foundation (NYSHealth). The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation or of NYSHealth.

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