Consumers have only a vague idea of what medical services really cost.[@@]

Researchers from Great-West Healthcare, Greenwood Village, Colo., have published data supporting that conclusion in a report on a telephone survey of 2,000 U.S. residents ages 18 to 64 conducted by Harris Interactive Inc., Rochester, N.Y.

Survey workers asked participants about the average cost of plumber’s time for basic repairs, a round-trip plane ticket for a trip from New York to Los Angeles, a routine doctor’s visit, an emergency room visit and a 4-day stay at a hospital.

Participants were within 8% of what researchers believed to be the correct price for the plane ticket and within 17% of the estimated price for the plumber’s services.

Participants’ estimates were 24% higher than the researchers’ estimate of the average list price of an emergency room visit, 29% lower than the researchers’ estimate for a routine’s doctor’s visit and 56% lower than the researchers’ estimate for a 4-day hospital stay.

The nature of managed care claim repricing systems could be responsible for some of the discrepancies between what the participants said the prices were and what researchers thought the prices were: Insured consumers may be accustomed to seeing that the prices their insurers pay for medical services are often much different from the prices doctors and hospitals put on claims.

But the researchers note that only 15% of survey participants said they are able to find out what treatment costs before treatment starts.

Employers and insurers are hoping consumers will learn to drive their health plans, but, in the real world, “63% don’t know the treatment costs until the medical bill arrives,” the researchers write in the survey report.

Although only 4% of the participants said cost is the most important factor in selecting a hospital, 84$ said that less expensive care can be as effective as more expensive care.