Letter to the Editor: Medical costs should be public information

When you buy a new pair of shoes or go grocery shopping, you know exactly what you will be paying, down to the last cent. Even if you’re unsure, pricing information is easily accessible — whether it be at your local store or via a quick online search. This is reasonable; it allows you to make an informed choice before you decide what you would like to consume. This is the case for most products or services that we purchase.

When you are in need of a surgical procedure, might need to visit an emergency room or are expecting to stay at a hospital overnight, do you know precisely how much your medical bill will come out to?

Ambiguous medical cost estimates create an inequality of knowledge and power between providers and patients. The current system disadvantages individuals in need of medical resources. Therefore, I propose that health care providers, insurance companies and the United States government work to create a system that makes medical costs public information.

Suppose you turn to the Medicare Interactive website for some information on coverage and costs if you stay in a hospital overnight. What do you see? Vaguely worded information with links to long and extremely complicated manuals. Unlike other products and services that we consume, a standardized system that makes medical costs public information and allows people to make informed choices does not exist.

Similar services, such as Healthcare Bluebook, provide “fair price comparison[s],” but these costs are based on averages and do not reflect actual costs. The data are collected from participating providers that have made a commitment to “transparency.” These averages are insufficient in providing patients a way of making informed decisions about their healthcare.

Consider this. If grocery stores functioned under a system of average costs, you would only know an estimate of what the price of an apple might be. You try to compare prices, but you find that prices vary from $0.50 to $5. Either way, you really need an apple, so you buy it and hope for the best. Two weeks later, you receive a letter in the mail charging you $3.50 for the apple you purchased.

Healthcare Bluebook’s system of average costs is a noble attempt at making medical costs public information, but it is insufficient and is not the way our health care should function. This outrage points to the necessity of a system that makes all medical costs public information, regardless of a hospital’s relationship with different insurance companies. While our complicated healthcare system should be reevaluated completely, public access to medical costs does not necessitate major reform.

It is unacceptable that a 2015 study conducted by the Yale School of Medicine found that the national “average estimated facility cost per maternity stay ranged from $1,189 to $11,986.” It is even more intolerable for these prices to be largely hidden from parents-to-be until after childbirth has occurred. This exploits the patient’s reliance on medical attention and renders them ignorant.

Healthcare spending as a share of gross domestic product in the United States remains the highest among other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In 2015, 12 percent of this country’s total health spending is made up of “households’ out-of-pocket spending.” This 12 percent represents the members of society who do not have access to health insurance and/or struggle to pay any co-payments that a hospital presents them.

According to the OECD, while the United States expects people to pay unreasonable prices for medical care, other “countries have policies in place to protect vulnerable populations from excessive out-of-pocket payments.”

Even though providing access to medical costs prior to a hospital visit will not address the out-of-pocket payments that individuals may have to make, it presents the ability to make a choice. If necessary, a family could drive to a different state to receive care from a physician that has competitive prices or choose to purchase off-brand medication if it is the best financial decision. While all of America is waiting for something to trump the Affordable Care Act, I am waiting for families to have the ability to choose the form of care that best suits their needs.

Christian Reyes, SESP junior