State launches new comparison tool for consumers

In another effort to shed more light on health care costs, California consumers got a new online tool Monday to make it easier to compare medical costs and quality ratings in their neighborhood.

“Consumers have been in the dark for a long time” about health care costs and quality ratings, said state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, who introduced the California Healthcare Compare tool at a San Francisco press conference. Likening the current health care market to consumers shopping in a department store “with a bag over their heads,” unable to see the price of what they’re buying, Jones said the new site is intended to provide more transparency for major health care costs.

It provides average prices – by region – for treating 100 common medical conditions, from appendicitis to urinary tract infections. Consumers can see a range of prices (total payments, payments to insurers and out-of-pocket payments) that appear on color-coded maps of California counties. The tool also compiles existing quality ratings on hospital and medical groups, intended to help consumers assess their options when considering a medical procedure. Those ratings were drawn from existing data compiled from state and federal sources.

The California Healthcare Compare project was funded by a $3.9 million federal grant through the Affordable Care Act in a partnership with the Department of Insurance, Consumer Reports and University of California health care experts from Davis and San Francisco.

Emphasizing why cost comparisons are needed, Jones cited an unnamed consumer who had complained to his department about the “huge disparity” between two local medical labs for a single blood test. One lab was charging her $400 ($200 with insurance coverage), while a second lab in the same region was charging $3,500 ($2,000 with insurance).

Using the new tool, he said, a consumer could check whether the price they were being charged was reasonable within their area. “It gives you a reference in terms of understanding what it should be priced at,” Jones said. “If it’s way out of line, it underscores the urgent need to shop around to see if you could get a better price.”

By linking with Consumer Reports, “It makes this information a little more accessible to consumers,” said Dr. Patrick Romano, a UC Davis professor of medicine and pediatrics, who was a consultant on the project. “It’s a re-processing of information that’s already in the public domain...but a little more user-friendly.”

The site’s format was vetted by thousands of consumers before it launched, according to Consumer Reports. “From the consumer perspective, it’s trying to integrate the quality and cost information a way that’s helpful but not misleading,” said Doris Peter, director of Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center.

Claudia Buck: 916-321-1968, @Claudia_Buck