At one place, it costs $372. At another, $1,223.
These are the prices members of Neighborhood Health Plan will pay out of pocket for the same procedure, an MRI of the lower back, at different health care providers.
Neighborhood and other insurance companies have started posting such prices online, as required by a 2012 state law. State officials hope consumers will use the information to comparison shop for scans, colonoscopies, knee replacements, and other procedures just as they shop around for consumer products like furniture and appliances.
The goal is to control health care costs by enticing consumers to choose care in lower-cost settings, and to nudge high-cost providers to reduce their rates to remain competitive.
State officials kicked off an ad campaign Tuesday to encourage consumers to research health care prices, with a new website, www.getthedealoncare.org. The site links to cost comparison tools for 13 insurers.
The ads mimic the tone of commercials for consumer products such as car insurance. "I compared and saved a bundle on my MRI," one slogan says. "I compared and got a nice price on my new knee," says another.
"When prices are transparent in a market, when consumers can see them and other providers can see them, the result of that is going to be lower costs," said Barbara Anthony, undersecretary of consumer affairs.
Consumers already can call insurance companies to get price quotes, but as of Oct. 1, that information must also be online. Consumers can access only their own insurers' prices. For example, a Harvard Pilgrim Health Care customer can't see what the costs would be under a Blue Cross Blue Shield plan.
The new cost estimators give consumers a list of all the doctors or health care facilities in a certain area that perform a certain service, from the lowest cost to the highest cost. The cost breakdown includes the amount paid by the consumer and the amount paid by the insurer. Each insurer's website, however, varies. Some list many more procedures than others.
The new price information comes at a time when high deductible health plans, which put a greater cost burden on consumers, are on the rise.
"If you're not offering value, you're going to lose out," Anthony said.
Hartford-based Aetna, which has 216,000 members in Massachusetts, launched a cost comparison tool here in 2010, before it was required by law. Nationally, Aetna's cost estimator has been viewed more than 4 million times in four years.
Chris Riedl, Aetna's executive director of product management, said the tool simulates an actual health care claim, using current rates. "We think it's very important for our members to be able to understand those costs, and to avoid surprises from those bills that come in the mail after the fact," she said.
The greater transparency around prices could put a spotlight on providers with the highest price tags. The Massachusetts Hospital Association said it supports the transparency measures but added that implementing such programs is complex. "It's in the mutual interest of patients, providers, and insurers that this information is provided in an accurate and coordinated manner," the association said.