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Consumers struggle to find information on health care costs, poll shows

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Most Massachusetts residents want to know more about the costs of their health care — yet few actually research those costs, according to a new survey.

The results of the poll, commissioned by Boston’s Pioneer Institute, reflects the complexity of health care pricing and the difficulties for consumers trying to find out how much they must pay out of pocket for their care.

The survey, released Monday, includes responses from 500 adults across Massachusetts with private health insurance plans. It did not include people with public coverage, such as Medicare and Medicaid.

Seventy percent of those who responded to the survey said they wanted to know the price of a medical service before obtaining it, regardless of their income.


Yet only 31 percent said they were aware their insurance company has a website that allows them to estimate their costs for specific services. And even fewer had ever used their insurer’s cost-estimator tool.

All health insurers that operate in the state are required to provide cost estimates for medical services, a requirement of a 2012 health care cost containment law.

The price of medical services can vary widely from one facility to the next, particularly for common tests such as MRIs.

“People want to know price information,” said Barbara Anthony, senior fellow in health care at Pioneer. “Some of them know that they have it at their disposal, most do not. The reason is that it just may be too complicated to deal with. It may not be easy, it may be intimidating.”

Anthony said Pioneer, a free market-oriented research center, commissioned the poll because Massachusetts has required insurers and providers to make price information available for several years — but “no one has asked consumers what they think.”

Most of those surveyed said they were satisfied with their health insurance, but most also reported worrying about health care costs.


Poll director David Paleologos said the survey suggests that insurers, employers, and state officials need to better educate the public about how to research medical costs.

“They have to take leadership to promote the value of price transparency,” he said. “We know people are interested in price.”

Health care price transparency has been the subject of debate for years.

Many health care experts have advocated for greater transparency, arguing that when they have more information, consumers can comparison-shop and choose less expensive providers.

But the availability of cost information so far has not resulted in big savings.

Last month, Attorney General Maura Healey’s office reported that few consumers — only about 2 to 7 percent — research costs on their insurers’ websites. “Online pricing tools can empower consumers to make informed decisions, but
. . . they simply aren’t playing a significant role in controlling health care costs,” Healey said at the time.

Consumers may not know how to find cost information, or they may simply choose to follow their doctors’ recommendations about where to get their medical care, without researching costs.

Health care spending in Massachusetts grew to $60.9 billion in 2018, according to the Center for Health Information and Analysis, a state agency. Consumers continued to bear a greater share of health costs, with premiums and out-of-pocket costs rising faster than wages and inflation.

Dr. Ateev Mehrotra, a professor at Harvard Medical School, noted the complexity of the health care payment system — copayments, coinsurance, billing codes, facility fees — which is a burden for patients and consumers.


“We’ve got to make these [cost estimator] tools both easier to access and interpret,” he said Monday at a discussion hosted by Pioneer.

A state-run website, CompareCare, allows the public to browse health care cost information. It also links to specific insurers’ cost estimator sites.

Michael Caljouw, vice president of state government and regulatory affairs at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, said the insurance company provides cost estimates for over 1,600 different medical services on its website and on a mobile app.

Caljouw said insurers, employers, and doctors and hospitals all should do more to help consumers understand their costs.

“We’re seeing more and more consumer awareness every year,” he told the Globe. “It’s a revolution that’s occurring, but it occurs over time.”

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.