Doris Peter needs help.
The Consumer Reports researcher has set up many health-related rating programs for the Yonkers, New York-based publication. Recently, she worked on an effort to grade a total of 16 New York state health care cost estimator tools, including 11 tools posted by insurers and five by stand-alone companies.
Her team also graded stand-alone health care cost estimation websites. Peter’s team looked at factors such as how easy the tools were to use and whether the tools gave users with health coverage an idea of what their out-of-pocket costs might be.
The team could not grade how well the price estimates matched what patients actually paid for care.
To measure the accuracy of the price estimates, Peter needs hundreds, or maybe thousands, of people to look for health care cost estimates online, get care, and then show members of her team copies of the original cost estimates, along with copies of the actual medical bills.
“We’ve definitely thought about it,” Peter said recently. “The hard part of is finding people.”
When Consumer Reporters has organized similar mystery shopper projects in the past, it’s had to pay stipends of as much as $100 per shopper. ”Just to get a handful of people was a chore,” Peter said.
Only five of 40 consumers Consumer Reporters brought in just to test cost estimator tool usability had even tried using a cost estimator tool before.
Peter said she’d be thrilled if broker, large employer or other entity could help Consumer Reports find mystery health care shoppers who would show it their care cost estimates and their actual bills.
Cost estimator limitations
Health insurers and independent companies have been offering cost estimator tools for more than a decade.
For the tool developers, one major obstacle has been patient resistance. Some patients have high-deductible health plans, and a strong incentive to shop for affordable care. But a majority of patients still have coverage that minimizes their out-of-pocket costs, and reduces their interest in shopping for care based on price.