State officials are launching a website that attempts to make health care costs a little easier for consumers to understand.
The long-planned website, MassCompareCare.gov , is scheduled to go live Wednesday. It contains information about health care costs and quality, and includes guides to help patients ask the right questions about their care.
“We want it to be a resource for people to make better decisions about health care procedures,” said Ray Campbell, executive director of the Center for Health Information and Analysis, or CHIA, the state agency overseeing the website. “We definitely see ourselves providing a valuable service.”
Time will tell whether the site actually helps consumers navigate the health care system and shop for affordable care. Campbell said he hopes people who use the site send feedback so his agency can improve the website over time.
Here’s what consumers need to know about the new state health care website:
What does the website show?
It contains information about the cost of roughly 300 common medical services and procedures, including office visits, X-rays, MRIs, colonoscopies, and mammograms. In some cases, the costs vary widely from one facility to another.
The site will show the total amount paid to a health care provider for a medical service, including the insurance company’s share and the patient’s share of the cost.
The prices are somewhat dated: They’re based on commercial insurance claims from 2015.
State officials stress that health care costs are just one component of the website. They also want consumers to browse hospital quality scores, and read about how to discuss medical care with their doctors. A couple of suggested questions: “Do I really need this procedure?” and “Is it worth the cost?”
Who is the target audience?
This is who should not use the site: anyone trying to find out their specific out-of-pocket cost for an upcoming service or procedure. Patients should seek this information from their health insurer, because out-of-pocket costs can vary widely from plan to plan. All Massachusetts health insurers are required to provide cost estimates online.
But the state website could be a resource for health care providers, academic researchers, employers, and consumers curious to learn more about health care costs. People with health plans that have high deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs can browse the site to get a sense of which doctors and hospitals are more expensive and which are more affordable, and how those providers rank in quality.
Why did the state create the site?
Two Massachusetts health care laws, passed in 2006 and 2012, required the state to create a consumer-friendly health care website. The project was delayed, however, until officials hired a contractor and began building the website last year. (A previous rudimentary state website was taken down several years ago after it was deemed useless to consumers).
Health care costs can be extremely complicated. Many policy makers and health care experts believe that with more information about costs, consumers will be able to make better decisions about where to get their care. By choosing lower-cost facilities that are also high-quality, consumers — and the broader system — could save money.
Past studies have shown that only a small fraction of consumers actually shop around for medical care. Still, many experts, policy makers, and consumer advocates believe that health care costs should be more transparent.
‘Providing con-sumers with online access to cost infor-mation for services and individual providers will serve as a powerful tool for price trans-parency.’
“Providing consumers with online access to cost information for services and individual providers will serve as a powerful tool for price transparency across our health care system,” Governor Charlie Baker said in a statement.
What does the health care industry think about it?
State officials allowed doctors, hospitals, and insurers to test the new website for months before the launch. They incorporated feedback from the industry to update and improve an early version of the site.
While health care providers remain concerned that information on the website could confuse consumers, they are not objecting to the state effort to make medical costs more transparent.
“We support transparency in costs and quality, and appreciate the opportunity to collaborate [with state officials on the website],” the Massachusetts Medical Society said in a statement.
Steve Walsh, president of the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, said state officials have heard hospital leaders’ concerns about limitations of the state data.
“We’re optimistic that the new website will include helpful explanations about the reliability, value, and usefulness of the presented data,” Walsh said in a statement.
Insurers are more bullish on the new state effort. Lora Pellegrini, president of the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, said in a statement: “The launch of the site is an important step in opening the black box of provider pricing and driving care to the state’s highest-value physicians and hospitals.”Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.