April 18, 2018

Health cost estimators catching on, Pioneer report says

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Cost estimators offered by Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Tufts Health Plan and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts are improving in user-friendliness, according to a new report by the Pioneer Institute. The 2012 Health Care Cost Containment bill required health plans to develop the tools by 2014.

Private health insurers are waking up to benefits of price transparency, but work remains to reach the potential for cost savings from providing consumers with more information, according to a new study from the Pioneer Institute.

The study, released Wednesday, analyzed the online cost estimator tools offered by Blue Cross Blue Shield, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, and Tufts Health Plan, finding them to be more user-friendly than the same tools were in a 2015 assessment by Health Care For All. A 2012 health care cost containment law required insurers to develop the cost estimators by October 2014.

The tools "cover between 700 and 1,600 procedures, a vast improvement over the initial numbers of procedures available in 2015," Pioneer said. The institute also flagged it as important that "all three carriers are embracing incentive/reward programs to attract workers at entities with 250 or more employees to lower-cost, high value providers."

Jim Stergios, Pioneer's executive director, said the number of aggregate inquiries on the cost tools -- about 297,000 from early 2014 through 2017, compared to the at least 3 million people the three carriers cover -- "shows that the carriers still have a lot of work ahead to achieve price transparency's potential to rein in healthcare costs."

The study also noted that none of the three cost estimators "are readily available in a language other than English," though the Blue Cross Blue Shield site is compatible with online translators.

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