'ClearHealthCosts' Sorts Out Bewildering Health Prices

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(Image: ClearHealthCost)

If you're uninsured or have a high deductible health plan, you've likely experienced the frustration of trying to figure out how much a specific medical procedure might cost you.

Start up ClearHealthCosts is trying to help. Former New York Times journalist Jeanne Pinder hatched the idea on the simple premise that "somehow you could bring transparency to the health care marketplace," as she told me today in an interview.

The site launched with price comparisons across 30 common procedures in New York and then (lucky for those in the Bay Area) added San Francisco. Let's pick a simple lower back MRI without dye. I searched within 25 miles of San Francisco, and the range was $500 on the low end to $1945 on the high end. If you're paying out of pocket, that's a whopping $1,445 savings to you.

In this case, the main driver of the big cost difference appeared to be whether the MRI would be done in a hospital (more overhead) or a clinic.

Pinder says that her team is "committing acts of journalism" with this site. They collect data in a variety of ways, but Pinder says one thing she has learned is that "in some cases, the prices seem to be kind of made up." If you are using the site, be sure to click the "notes" button next to a price. It often includes helpful information about additional costs or price options at that facility.


CalPERS -- the California Public Employees Retirement System -- has been shopping around, too. CalPERS asked Anthem Blue Cross, which manages its PPO plans, to look at prices for hip and knee replacements in California. Anthem found a range of $15,000 on the low end to $110,000 on the high end.

In 2011, CalPERS set a threshhold price of $30,000 for a hip or knee replacement. Members were still welcome to go to any of the more expensive facilities, but they would have to pay the difference out of pocket. CalPERS also made sure the facilities they were directing their members to met a quality standard.

Look for more attention to cost as the Affordable Care Act ramps up in anticipation of its January 1, 2014 launch. In the meantime, if you're paying most or all of your health costs out of pocket, ClearHealthCosts is a solid resource. If you don't live near San Francisco, check out their blog for strategies on cutting your health care costs.