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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Website lists cost of hospital procedures

CONCORD - The New Hampshire Hospital Association has unveiled major upgrades to a website that tracks the cost of common procedures at the state's 26 hospitals.

NHPricePoint.org now includes the costs of popular outpatient procedures, such as colonoscopies, MRIs and emergency room visits.

Previously, the site, which launched in 2006, listed similar pricing details for in-patient procedures.

"The information is available, and what PricePoint does is put it in a place where people can log on and see it," said Andrea Alley, a New Hampshire Hospital Association spokeswoman.

"We put it out there as just one more source of information," Alley said. "Really, this is just one more step toward transparency for hospitals and health care."

The database lists the median cost for more than 80 of the most commonly requested and performed outpatient procedures, visits and diagnostic tests. Each search lists the median cost for the chosen hospital, the average cost at similar hospitals and the statewide average.

Melissa Sears, vice president of strategy and business at St. Joseph Hospital in Nashua, said the website is a good first step toward health care pricing transparency, but can't be the only yardstick patients use to select a hospital.

"There's a lot of factors, not just insurance," she said. "Your general health is important, as well. The data is specific to that hospital and that year."

Sears said the information is relatively generic and subject to dozens of influences in specific instances, including everything from the vagaries of a patient's health to their health care plan, as well as the hospitals patient and payer mix.

"It's an incredibly complicated system, but I think it's a good first step," Sears said. "I think we have a long way to go in terms of being able to measure apples to apples across the board.

"You really need to talk to the individual provider and individual hospital and get an estimate that's really tailor-made for you."

New Hampshire Hospital Association officials acknowledged that the prices on the website reflect what hospitals charge rather than what the procedure costs them.

Those numbers are different because Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements don't change based on what the hospital spent. Therefore, a hospital with a high percentage of those patients has to recoup its losses in other ways, such as charging more to privately insured patients, said Steve Ahnen, president of the New Hampshire Hospital Association.

"What it does is it helps give consumers another tool for them as they are determining where they're going to receive their care," Ahnen said. "Cost, obviously, is one issue.

"This is one step, and we're going to continue to work to provide as much information as we can in a meaningful way."

Ahnen said cost is looming larger in patients' minds in recent years as many employers switch to health insurance plans that, instead of covering the vast majority of bills, now demand higher premiums, deductibles and co-pays.

"I think in the past it's true that people were very blind to the cost," he said. "I think over the last few years, benefit plans are changing pretty dramatically.

"We don't think that old model is one we'll see ever again."

Ahnen and Sears agreed that many people don't or aren't used to tracking what specific procedures and services cost.

For one thing, ascertaining cost, especially before you see an itemized bill, can be complicated. And also, it often isn't a priority when put next to an immediate need for care, Sears said.

"I think sometimes health care is something you don't think about until you need it, and when you need it, you really need it," she said.

"The first thing you want to know is are you going to be OK or is your loved one going to be OK."

Joseph G. Cote can be reached at 594-6415 or jcote@nashuatelegraph.com.

On the web:

www.NHPricePoint.org

For information on hospital performance, visit the Foundation for Healthy Communities' www.NHQualityCare.org.