Price Transparency and the True Cost of Quality Healthcare

When you read healthcare reviews online, so many of the 1-star reviews relate to prices: patients frustrated by high costs or surprised by high bills. It’s easy to think that price transparency rules will help. One key problem is that healthcare consumers are intermittently if not completely insulated from the true costs of their care due to the filter of commercial insurance. It’s hard to blame people for feeling that their doctor’s time is “worth” a $35 copay instead of the hundreds of dollars they really pay indirectly.

When my family moved from typical employer-provided health insurance to a high-deductible plan, I finally started seeing firsthand how much things really “cost,” and how ludicrous billing gamesmanship practices have become.

I’m a physician, and even I find it striking.

I recently received a bill for hundreds of dollars for an annual well-person patient visit that should have been covered at 100%. If you manage to complain about anything during the intake, you see, you also get billed for a problem visit at the same time.

Is that nuts? Well, yes, of course it is. But this is the world we live in and how institutions pay the bills.

Dr. Peter Ubel had an interesting article in The Atlantic back in 2013 called “How Price Transparency Could End Up Increasing Health-Care Costs” that holds up pretty well. His main thought experiment centers on imaging, which is an easy but sort of plus/minus example.

The same kind of consumer pressure rarely exerts a similar influence on the cost and quality of health-care goods. For starters, most patients have little inclination, or motivation, to shop for health-care bargains. Insurance companies pick up most of the tab for patients’ health-care. A patient who pays a $150 co-pay for an MRI (like I do with my insurance) won’t care whether the clinic she goes to charges the insurance company $400 or $800 for that MRI. The MRI is still going to cost the patient $150. Even patients responsible for 20 percent of the tab (a phenomenon called co-insurance) face a maximum bill of only $160 in this circumstance. That is not an inconsequential amount of money, but it is still not enough money to prompt most patients to shop around for less expensive alternatives, especially when most consumers don’t realize that the price of such for services often varies significantly, with little discernible difference in quality.

To make matters worse, patients often don’t shop for health care in the kind of rationally defensible way that economic theory expects them to. According to neoclassical economics, when making purchasing decisions consumers independently weigh the costs of services from the quality of those same services. If toaster A is more expensive than toaster B, the consumer won’t buy A unless it is better than B in some way — unless it is more durable or has better features — and unless these improved features are worth the extra money.

While some patients shop around for imaging services, many stay within a larger system for all their care or go where their doctor tells them. A more meaningful scenario in a large metro would be to compare broad costs across multiple specialties/types of care across multiple health systems. Say, in Dallas, would you generally pay less at UT Southwestern, Health Texas, or Texas Health? Does that hold true for primary care and specialty care? Are there certain categories of chronic diseases that one network does better or worse with? What about labs and imaging?

Due to network effects, a consumer may not meaningfully be able to choose where to do every little thing, but rapidly comparing systems is perhaps not beyond reach. It would be nice to know, for example, which places are playing games to maximize insurance payouts at patients’ expense and which (if any) aren’t.

Sometimes, however, cost and quality are not perceived by consumers as being independent attributes. Instead, people assume the cost of a good or service tells them something about its quality. For instance, blind taste tests have shown that consumers rate the flavor of a $100 bottle of wine as being superior to that of a $10 bottle of wine, even when researchers have given people the exact same wines to drink. Other studies show that expensive pain pills reduce pain better than the same pills listed at a lower price. Price, then, leads to a placebo effect.

Such a placebo effect is no major concern in the context of wine tasting and pain pills (even if it suggests that consumers could save themselves some money if they didn’t hold this strange belief that higher cost means higher quality). But suppose your doctor asks you to get a spinal MRI to evaluate the cause of your back pain, and you decide to shop around for prices before getting the test. Would greater price transparency cause you to choose an MRI provider more rationally? Or would you instead mistakenly assume that higher price means higher quality? There is reason to worry that price transparency won’t lead consumers to make savvy decisions. It is too difficult for people to know which health-care provider offers the highest quality care.

If patients are not going to make savvy use of price information to choose higher quality, lower cost health-care, some health-care providers, like doctors and hospitals, will probably respond to price transparency by raising their prices.

And there’s the rub: is it a race to the bottom or a slow creep to the top? And if it’s both, how do we predict and influence the outcome? If the growth of debt-fluid corporate and private equity has taught us anything, it’s that competition is fickle, and it doesn’t take much for a dominant position to be abused.

Imagine you direct an MRI center in Massachusetts, and the state government requires you and your competitors to post prices for your services. You consequently find out that the MRI center around the corner from you charges $300 more than you do for their spinal MRIs, and that this increased price hasn’t hurt their business. Imagine, also, that you are convinced that your competitors don’t offer higher quality MRI scans than you do — your MRI machines are just as new and shiny as theirs; your radiologists and technicians are just as well trained. In that case, if patients are not going to be price-sensitive, you are going to raise your prices to match your competitor’s. Otherwise you are just leaving money on the table.

Quality in healthcare is a theoretically important metric but it is so, so poorly measured and understood. Customer satisfaction? Not so good. Outcomes? Highly influenced by patient selection. Healthcare is heterogeneous and complex.

Ultimately, the problem is complex and nuanced, but we should keep this in mind. Efforts to increase price transparency through state and federal law need to be carefully crafted and closely followed. Such laws should include research funding that would enable experts to evaluate how the law influences patient and provider behavior.

Also, whenever possible, price transparency should be accompanied by quality transparency. We need to provide consumers with information not only about the cost of their services but also about the quality of those services, so that they can trade off between the two when necessary. I recognize that this is a huge challenge. Measuring health care quality is no simple task. But if we are going to push for greater price transparency, we should also increase our efforts to determine the quality of health care offered by competing providers. Without such efforts, consumers will not know when, or whether, higher prices are justified.

It’s no surprise that optimizing for cost seems like a reasonable plan given how easy it is to compare versus how hard meaningful quality indicators are to measure.

But price selection in the absence of quality selection creates a perverse incentive for the cheapest lowest-quality-but-just-barely-permissible product.


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