Our Opinion: New state website could help reduce health care costs

Health care costs continue to rise in Massachusetts, and the state hopes that one way of slowing that rise will be the establishment of an online site where residents can compare costs of medical procedures across the state. Its success is dependent upon whether or not people will use it.

The cost of common medical procedures like mammograms and colonoscopies varies widely across the state, with costs tending to be higher in eastern Massachusetts. If consumers gravitate toward hospitals or medical clinics that charge less for these procedures, than costs should go down. Establishing a state website where people can compare costs should advance this process, and the state's Center for Health Information and Analysis (CHIA) hopes to have such a site up and running by fall.

Other states and companies, however, have not had good results in persuading consumers to use these sites. The Boston Globe reports that while health insurers in Massachusetts are required to post price information online, only a few thousand consumers have made use of them, a drop in the bucket in terms of the millions of residents who have health insurance. The CHIA hopes that a website that is more user-friendly will encourage greater patronage. In 2015, the state took down a health care website that was not well-used and received poor marks for accessibility, and CHIA has been in the process of designing a replacement that removes glitches and offers current technology since then.

There are other obstacles, beginning with health insurers who forbid customers from going out-of-network to find less expensive treatment. The theory among health care specialists is that consumers who are provided with price-shopping tools will pressure insurers to give them options they don't currently possess. Studies also indicate that people in need of a medical procedure are understandably inclined to go where their primary care physician recommends they go. The state may need to explore offering incentives to persuade people to use lower-cost hospitals, or disincentives, such as allowing higher fees from health insurers for customers who choose to go to more costly hospitals for routine medical procedures.

For now, however, the priority is the establishment of an easily usable state website where residents can not only get cost information but can look at hospital safety records and receive basic information on how to get insurance through MassHealth. Medical costs are climbing for a variety of reasons, and any measure that attacks the problem is welcome. A revamped state website has the potential to address the cost issue while providing other information required for health care consumers to make educated decisions.


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