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New hospital price estimators difficult to navigate

News File Photo MidMichigan Medical Center-Alpena is pictured under renovation on Chisholm Street on March 1.

ALPENA — New federal transparency rules are meant to make health care services more “shoppable,” but the voluminous price databases hospitals post online can be hard for a consumer to navigate.

Greg George, director of legislative affairs at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland-based think tank, said hospitals are just two months into complying with the new federal rules, so some formats may not yet be very consumer-friendly.

The News’ efforts to compare prices as northern Michigan hospitals proves that’s true.

Say, for example, a patient wanted to compare the cost of a colonoscopy at MidMichigan Medical Center-Alpena, McLaren Northern Michigan in Petoskey, and Otsego Memorial Hospital in Gaylord.

At the Alpena hospital’s site, after accepting a disclaimer that the estimates are not a price guarantee, the patient would then search for “colonoscopy,” but would have to select from three options — “colonoscopy”, “colonoscopy with a biopsy”, or “colonoscopy with removal of a polyp.”

News Photo by Crystal Nelson Mandy Peirce, manager of patient accounting at MidMichigan Medical Center-Alpena, and hospital President Chuck Sherwin talk about price transparency on Wednesday at the hospital annex building in Alpena.

Assuming he or she knew exactly which type of procedure he or she needed, the patient would then have to select his or her insurance provider and enter his or her name, birth date, and insurance information.

The Petoskey hospital requires patients to enter more personal information, including gender, address, phone number, and email, before allowing patients to search for a procedure. Petoskey’s online price tool requires patients to select from four different types of colonoscopy procedures.

Meanwhile, a search for “colonoscopy” on the Gaylord hospital’s site does not yield any search results.

George, of the Mackinac Center, said he expects the online price tools to become easier for consumers to navigate.

“I really view this as the starting point towards greater transparency going forward,” George said of the data. “There’s going to be third-party groups that digest this data and present it out there, too.”

And, in the long run, the transparency will benefit consumers, he said.

When health insurance companies know what hospitals have negotiated with other companies, they have more power to negotiate different prices.

Jeffrey Kullgren, a University of Michigan professor who focuses on health care, said it’s essential patients get the help they need at the price they can afford, but clinicians also have to be part of the discussion.

“What happens all too often is that, when people are having trouble affording their health care, their clinician recommends one thing to them and they put a plan together,” Kullgren said. “They use the clinic, and then the patient doesn’t end up getting the service, because they’re too worried about how much it might cost them.”

Kullgren said having those conversations with patients — discussing how much a service might cost and the most affordable way to receive that service — will benefit patients.

“That would lead to a lot better outcomes for many patients, especially those who have trouble affording their health care,” he said.

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