For years, Massachusetts health policy makers have envisioned a website that could serve as a one-stop shop for consumers who want to know the price of a common medical test or procedure.
State officials are finally preparing to launch such a website this spring, months later than their previous self-imposed deadline, and with more tempered ambitions.
Officials at the Center for Health Information and Analysis, a state agency that serves as a clearinghouse for health care data and is required by law to create a public health care cost website, are stressing that the project is only a piece of a broader state goal of increasing transparency around medical costs.
The more modest tone comes about a year after they began the long-delayed effort of creating a website and started holding dozens of meetings with hospital leaders, doctors, and health insurers. Those meetings have highlighted a critical question: Instead of helping consumers, is this information going to confuse them?
“There’s a whole bunch of things that could be wrong with the site, including that nobody ever comes,” said Ray Campbell, executive director of the state agency, known as CHIA. “But the biggest danger that we confront is confusing people.”
The website, which has been tested by industry insiders over the past two months, shows payments to physicians and health care facilities for hundreds of outpatient medical services. The numbers represent the total amount an insurance company paid for a service, plus the amount paid out of the consumer’s pocket. So if a particular service was $250, for example, that could include $200 paid by the insurer and $50 by the consumer.
The figures provide a snapshot of the sometimes wide cost difference for the same service at one health care provider versus another. One Boston-area hospital, for example, was paid $257 for a mammogram, while another was paid $439, and another was paid $573, according to state data.
But consumers should not try to find their specific out-of-pocket costs for a mammogram, MRI, colonoscopy, or other service based solely on the state website, Campbell warned. For that, they should turn to their own insurance companies. Commercial health insurers in Massachusetts already are required to run websites that show the costs of services for consumers, depending on their specific health plans.
Massachusetts’ effort to create a health care cost website, which was supposed to be ready by September, has been delayed in part because of problems with a subcontractor that made errors loading the data, setting the project behind by several weeks, CHIA officials said.
Other delays were a result of the agency’s many meetings with members of the health care industry, officials said. The agency has addressed more than 200 technical and other issues based on feedback from people in the industry who tested an early version of the website.
In addition to cost information, the website is expected to include some health care quality data, explanations of common medical terms, and suggested questions to ask a doctor before undergoing a procedure.
Officials said they are spending about $571,900 to launch the site. They have not announced exactly when it will go public.
Health care providers, which traditionally have preferred to keep price information secret, are supporting the state transparency effort — if grudgingly.
“I think they’re very curious to see [information] about their competitors,” Campbell said. “I think they’re nervous about people seeing it about them.”
Doctors and hospital leaders credited state officials for keeping them informed about the website ahead of its launch.
But Dr. Henry L. Dorkin, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, raised several concerns.
Dorkin said some doctors who tested the site — himself included — found it was lacking information about all of the facilities where they worked and all of the insurers they contracted with.
In addition, the site uses 2015 numbers, so some of the information is no longer relevant.
“If it only shows a portion of a physician’s practice, or the data is so old that it doesn’t show physicians where they currently are [working], there are a lot of opportunities for misinterpretation,” said Dorkin, who works at Boston Children’s Hospital.
“I’m just not sure exactly how well the data would help someone,” he said.
Steve Walsh, president of the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, said hospital leaders support the concept of greater transparency in health care, but they want to make sure the information on the state website isn’t misleading.
The hope among policy makers is that consumers, armed with more information, will be able to make better choices about where they get their care. This could include choosing lower-cost medical facilities, which would save money for the consumer and the broader health care system.
But it’s unclear how many consumers and employers will use the state website.
At Massachusetts’ largest health insurers, which operate their own cost websites, the numbers of people searching for information is just a fraction of the total insured.
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts said it received 38,240 inquiries on its cost website in 2017, about 5,000 more than the previous year.
Harvard Pilgrim Health Care said 40,000 people visited its cost website in 2016, but that fell sharply last year when the site was taken down for several months to be updated.
At Tufts Health Plan, the cost estimator website had 22,567 page hits last year, almost 9,000 less than the previous year.
Insurers said they have worked to improve and promote their websites over the past few years.
Lora Pellegrini, president of the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, said the state’s upcoming health care cost website can also play an important role.
“We see this as another tool for consumers and employers to understand the differences around the cost of health care services,” she said. “We’re hoping it will spur a public conversation about how can we make health care more affordable.”Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey @globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.