KQED Launches 'PriceCheck' to Make Health Costs Transparent

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(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

Update June 30: Early PriceCheck data show Bay Area mammogram prices range from $125 to $801

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Say you're shopping for a new computer or a new car, and you want to get the best price. Within a matter of minutes on Google, you would have a pretty good idea of the price range for the product you want.

But in health care? Forget it.

It's well known to health policy types, but less so to consumers, that health care prices are utterly lacking in transparency and wildly variable.


If you've ever looked at a bill for a health care procedure -- and been astounded by the numbers you see -- or thought that you would like to find the best price on an elective procedure -- and been astounded that there's no easy way to compare prices -- KQED is launching a new project for you.

Today we bring you "Price Check," a community-created guide to health costs. Since no database yet exists where consumers can easily look up costs, we're commencing the work of creating one. But we need your help.

This summer and into the fall, we're turning to you, our community, to share -- anonymously -- what you have paid for some common procedures. We're starting with mammograms. (More on "why mammograms?" in a moment.)

We've created a tool to make it easy to share what you paid. Visit the tool and take a look. If you don't have insurance and pay out of pocket -- called self-pay -- you can enter that price. If you have insurance, you can submit both what your health insurance paid and your own co-pay charge, if any.

Once you've shared your costs, the tool will feed your information into a database so you can see how much mammograms cost elsewhere in the Bay Area and across California. Again, your submitted data are anonymous and confidential.

We want this project to have as much impact as possible, so we have teamed up with KPCC, our public radio friends in Southern California, and ClearHealthCosts.com, a New York City startup working to bring transparency to the health care marketplace.

We chose to start with mammograms, because it is a screening test that many women have at least every other year. Because it is a test that can be scheduled, women could, in theory, shop around for the best price. Yes, mammograms are covered as a preventive benefit under the Affordable Care Act, and patients are supposed to access them at no co-pay, but that doesn't always happen.

ClearHealthCosts did a pilot version of this project with WNYC public radio in New York in 2012. They found that 25-30 percent of the 400 respondents were paying for their mammograms. That's because some of the women chose out-of-network providers, or they weren't insured, or the mammogram simply wasn't covered.

We'll be able to compare California data with what ClearHealthCosts learned with WNYC -- where women paid between $0 and $1,100 or more.

In other sectors of the economy, people often equate higher cost with higher quality, but in health care there's not a correlation between price and quality. We think people want quality care at a fair price. But just as there is little transparency in health costs, there are few good measures of quality. We believe that shining a bright light on health costs helps to drive discussion about quality metrics.

We're just at the start of this project. Over the next four months, we'll sample other common procedures. We're grateful to the Knight Foundation for funding this project through a Prototype Fund grant.

Please join us! We'll report what you share with us as soon as we have stories to tell.