Lynn Quincy (Senate Commerce Committee video screen capture)

Making sure U.S. consumers get the right health care and health plan information in the right way could have a big effect on how well consumers understand what they are getting. 

Lynn Quincy, a policy analyst at Consumers Union, gave that assessment today at a hearing on health care system transparency organized by a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee.

Lawmakers have been lacking at how the difficulties consumers have with getting information about the “list price” for health care services and the discounted prices health insurers pay affect consumers’ use of health care.

Quincy said Consumers Union has found when conducting surveys that consumers often see the price of health care as a quality indicator.

Because of that factor, policymakers and marketplace builders who want to encourage efficiency need to make sure consumers get quality data along with price data, to overcome the tendency to equate price with quality, Quincy said.

“One of the barriers to getting it right is that the information is too dense,” Quincy said at another point.

The federal government has required the use of both the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) privacy and notices and the “miles per gallon” (MPG) gasoline use stickers that appear on every new car, Quincy said.

The MPG stickers have been much more successful at getting information across to consumers and influencing consumers’ behavior, in part because the stickers are much simpler than the notices, Quincy said.

Quincy cited the story of an online retailer that changed its rather wordy standard user agreement on one April Fool’s Day to require buyers who clicked on the agreement to sell the retailer their immortal souls.

About 88 percent of the users clicked without reading the agreement and ended up putting the retailer in charge of their immortal souls, Quincy said.

Quincy said she believes that improved information disclosure can help consumers do a better job of shopping for care, but that the best way to control health care costs is to have large organizations, such as health plans, bargain with providers on behalf of consumers.

Because health care services are often so complicated and expensive, and needed when patients have little time or ability to compare options, many health care services are unshoppable, Quincy said.

Another witness, John Goodman, president of the National Center for Policy Analysis, a think tank that tries to promote free-market values, said he believes use of health savings accounts is one of the best ways to encourage market transparency, and that another way would be for the government to help Medicare and Medicaid plan enrollees to make heavier use of providers that are already transparent with prices, such as the walk-in clinics in many drug stores.

MediBid, a system that lets patients put out requests for proposals for health care, is another great tool, and patients who are able to travel within the United States for care may get expensive procedures for prices equal to about half of the typical price Medicare pays for the same procedure, Goodman said.

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