Video brings home pricing dilemma for health system

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"What if you could not find the price for anything at the grocery store, even the most basic items? What if the check-out clerk offered to mail you a bill, but could not tell you what your total amount would be?"

That's the interesting, and relevant, question asked by a video produced by health, life and disability insurance firm Regence Life and Health in a public statement. It drives home just how far providers have to go in the battle to achieve pricing transparency--and by doing so, by the way, improve collections rates substantially.

The obvious difference between grocery stores and healthcare providers, of course, is that consumers pay for their milk and eggs directly, while in most cases, when they seek healthcare they share the cost of care with a mysteriously capricious health plan. The current system doesn't just make it hard to find out what prices are, it discourages consumers from even being involved in pricing decisions.

Now, I've been a huge enemy of the rollout of Consumer-Directed Health Plans, which push consumers to direct their money to cheaper (and allegedly better) providers. Why? Because our system is still miles away from offering the kind of price transparency a grocer or furniture store can  offer. And as long as prices are still dicey, and quality information deceptive, forcing consumers to make decisions and pay a bunch of money up front simply can't have a positive effect.

On the other hand, it doesn't hurt to meditate on what a good old capitalist transaction looks like--and what it once looked like at some point in healthcare's history. It's safe to say that it will be years, if at all, before automated claims adjudication will become the norm among providers, much less complete price transparency. But this, certainly, is the ball we must keep our eyes on as we wrangle with our current system.

We may not be able to make healthcare financing as simple as retail sales, but we can remember that goods/services out, money in is the ideal. Whether it's swipe cards promoted by the MGMA, or kiosks, or forgodsake Paypal, we've got to get there soon. - Anne