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Leading policy-makers and scholars explain how market forces, deregulation, and consumer choice can work to improve health care for all Americans.

Commentary

Doctors, Post Your Prices
Scott W. Atlas, MD, Wall Street Journal, 2-17-06

Atlas calls for basic regulatory measures that would help consumers, particularly consumers with HSAs, navigate the health care system and bargain for better prices.

In our current system, few patients are aware of the costs of their medical care, generally because patients have no reason to ask since it is paid for by third-party insurance programs. This has allowed hospitals and doctors to avoid public view. Patients, however, would greatly benefit if the government required that prices be posted for common medical procedures before the care is administered, in the same way that the government requires clear labeling of medicine and food and open disclosure of prices on gasoline and automobiles. When prices are openly stated and widely known, competition will ensue and prices will come down -- regardless of whether or not patients initially use that knowledge to make their "purchasing" decisions. This would allow the price mechanism to function again.
Where would the price data come from, and for what procedures should prices be known at the start? I propose we start with the 10 to 20 most common procedures in both outpatient and inpatient medicine, such as MRI scans, a surgeon's bill for rotator cuff repair, or an anesthesiologist's bill for a cardiac surgery procedure. Procedure-based prices are more appropriate, because diagnosis-based prices would likely be too complicated to calculate and contain too many variables. To pre-empt the claim that "price depends on individual situations," posted prices could be based on retrospective analysis of the provider's previous three or six months' average of charges.
How would the price data be posted? The patient needs to know upfront, not after the fact. One way would be at the time when patients are handed the "medical information materials," such as brochures describing procedures and consent forms. Another way is to post them in the clinic offices and hospital admitting rooms. A third would be to put them on the Internet.

Atlasí suggestions seem eminently reasonable, and will hopefully get some attention from Washington policymakers who are interested in real reform.



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