Healthcare Technology Featured Article

May 22, 2012

Discount Doctors: Where Can You Find the Cheapest Care?

My husband sees it all the time. Fillings for $5. Crowns for $250. Who wouldn’t rather pay this than $100 or $700 for the procedures? Patients are shopping dentists to find the cheapest one. So are those needing surgery or rehab.

According to a story by Ryan Flinn, take that kind of difference (and you’ll find it everywhere in this country, not just in affluent areas), combine it with escalating medical spending (which could equal $20,000 out of pocket for consumers this year for those even with insurance) and the increasing amount of data available online, and presto! A new business opportunity has emerged – helping companies and their employees save health-care dollars. Some claim to be saving employers from 3 to 5 percent on their healthcare costs.

“This is about changing the way people shop for health care, and as a consequence, changing the way care gets delivered,” Giovanni Colella, co-founder of Castlight Health Inc., a San Francisco-based company that helps patients shop for medical care, told Flinn.

According to the story, medical spending in the U.S. increased 88 percent to $2.59 trillion in the last decade while out-of-pocket expenses rose 49 percent to $299.7 billion, as recorded by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Castlight works by showing how much doctors, labs and hospitals charge for their services, as well as providing quality ratings, while similar companies help employers locate less costly doctors and providers for their workers, Flinn reports.  Flinn says in his story that Castlight’s Colella told him that, by helping people compare the cost of medical providers, Castlight has saved the companies they work for from 3 percent to 5 percent of their baseline costs.

Last year, 13 percent of U.S. employees (and some self-employed ones, like me) were covered by so-called high-deductible plans that require you to pay most health costs, while (slightly) lowering your premium. In my case, it turned out that we were paying the $800 monthly premium just to pay for my medical costs.

But are you really getting what you pay for? My husband says you do. If you want to pay less, you’ll get less care. He says that doctors and dentists can’t afford to sell their services for less and still take the same amount of time with a patient that they would with someone paying a higher fee.

It stinks, but it’s reality.

Some people feel it is worth it. Allison Brown, director of employee services at Regis Corp. (RGS), told Flinn that using the Castlight service has paid off.  “We have had people actually challenge their doctors on what they were charged, based on what they saw in the Castlight system,” she said in an interview.

 However, it’s not all smooth sailing. Understanding the differences among tests, medications and types of services is a hurdle, David Belk, a doctor in Alameda, California, who wrote about this in a report, “The True Cost of Healthcare,” told Flinn.

“You know the difference between filet mignon and chuck steak, but you don’t know the difference between generic amlodipine and brand-name Norvasc,” which is Pfizer Inc.’s blood pressure medication, he said in the story.

Edited by Rachel Ramsey

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