PhotoStudies show that when consumers are presented with information about what health services cost, they tend to make better decisions. The hard part, however, is finding out what things cost.

New research by Public Agenda, a non-profit research organization, has found that 57% of consumers with health insurance and 51% of those lacking coverage are unaware of what their health care provider charges.

Without this information, the group says, consumers can't compare prices or look for less expensive providers when they are quoted a price they can't afford.

The study found that 56% of U.S. consumers have actively looked for prices before getting care, and 21% say they have compared prices across several providers. Of that group, nearly all say the price comparison influenced their decisions and ended up saving them money.

Consumers who compare prices charged by different providers tend to get more regular medical treatment. The study shows 42% of people who have compared prices before getting care receive regular medical treatment, compared with 33% of those who have not ever sought price information before getting care.

Make it easier to discuss prices

The authors say their findings suggest consumers want price information about their health care. They urge the industry to make it easier for providers, staff and insurance company personnel to discuss prices.

“The finding that many Americans are already trying to get price information from receptionists and hospital staff, insurance companies, doctors, hospital billing departments and nurses suggests a need to strengthen these professionals’ capacity to provide and discuss price information,” the authors write.

Consumers also need assistance in knowing where to look for price information. Part of the problem is health insurance. Some providers charge different rates, depending on whether the patient has a healthcare policy, and if so, what kind. However, a federal report recently found this does not happen as much as it once did.

Here's an example of a health care provider that posts its fee schedule, for both insured and uninsured patients.

More out-of-pocket costs

Since the Affordable Care Act (ACA) went into effect, health care consumers have been getting familiar with high deductible health insurance policies, according to the latest Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF).

A high deductible means the consumer pays the first $5000 or so of medical costs each year before certain aspects of the coverage kick in. It's designed to give consumers incentive to seek out lower health care prices.

But again, if consumers don't know what the care costs, and don't know where to look for the information, they aren't in a position to save money.

While ACA has made coverage more affordable, the high deductibles often mean many consumers can't afford to use their coverage.

“We assume that households pay premiums out of current income, but that they may need to use savings or other assets if they become seriously ill in order to meet the deductible or the out-of-pocket limit under their health insurance policies,” the SCF authors write. “We show that many households, in particular those with lower incomes or where someone lacks insurance, have low levels of resources that would make it difficult for them to meet health insurance cost sharing demands.”

All the more reason, it would seem, that health care consumers need an easy, transparent way to find out what things cost.

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