This is a report about a conference organized by Massachusetts State officials to provide more health care cost information in the effort to cabin the rise in those costs.

Empowering Health Care Consumers – A Community Conversation II

October 22, 2013 UMass Medical School / MA Office of Consumer Affairs & Business Regulation

Chuck Cobb Report

The State office for Consumers assembled 150 people to discuss how information to consumers can help reduce health care costs.  Interest groups were represented.  

Massachusetts has the most expensive health care system in the country (and in the world).  The Mass Office of Consumer Affairs wants information about cost and quality available.  The majority of commercial health care payments are made to high priced providers.  Massachusetts pioneering health care law calls for a Consumer Price Transparency Tool- requiring health plans and third-party administrators to offer a toll-free phone number and a website that allows members to obtain information on the estimated or allowed amount for a proposed admission, procedure, or service, and the estimated amount of member cost sharing (fee, copay, deductible, coinsurance, or other out of pocket amount) based on the information available at the time of the request.  Some state officials called to learn the cost of a tonsillectomy and generally did find out the prices.   Growth in prices of medical services, not utilization, is still the primary cost driver for each of the major commercial health plans in Massachusetts.

The conference featured discussion about how to prompt consumers to engage in health care cost issues.  Many patients still believe high cost equates to high quality.  The lunch speaker was a physician author responsible for Hospital evaluations in Consumer Reports. Transparency of pricing will have no impact unless consumers are prompted to act on the facts given. 

Employers negotiate health insurance terms for most people.  It is not clear how employers can make employees see that costly health care choices impact premiums.  Associated Industries of Massachusetts distributed its pamphlet How to Talk To Employees about Managing Their Health Care Choices.  Employers cannot target health care messages to individual employees; the message has to go to the group. 

Health insurers need to design plans to better incentivize lower cost consumer choices.  Harvard Pilgrim Health Plan has a program SaveOn which prompts consumers to opt for lower cost providers by paying the consumer some of the savings. 

Fallon Community Health Plan set up a consumer health information center in Worcester’s White City Shopping center. 

The day ended with Secretary of Consumer Affairs Barbara Anthony (who is reportedly considering a run for Attorney General) saying she felt there is a movement to contain health care costs and that the efforts described in the Conference were in service of that goal.  While other speakers during the day described how complex the system is, a lot of people are making money in it. The efforts by government to control those costs will continue as long as the medical sector consumes ever more resources.