Medical Bills Go Public

Web sites let you see what a hospital stay might cost

Congress, CEOs, and even the American Medical Assn. have long argued that one way to control health-care costs is to give consumers more decision-making power. But without decent price information for medical procedures, it's been a bit unrealistic to expect consumers to make smarter decisions about health-care spending.

Now, it's becoming easier to find information. As David Merritt, a policy analyst with the Center for Health Transformation, a research group headed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, puts it: "The price transparency train has left the station."

The state of Pennsylvania, for instance, has made hospital fees publicly available. Patients can now see that a heart bypass may cost from $10,000 to $80,000 depending on the hospital. The major health insurance carriers are getting on board, increasing the amount of information they provide.

Those with health savings accounts are most in need of pricing information. These plans, which combine catastrophic coverage with a tax-exempt savings account, can carry deductibles as high as $5,100 per individual. While still rare, they're starting to catch on. About 200,000 small business employees and their dependents were covered by the plans as of March, up from just 79,000 in September, 2004. Many experts predict that these plans will become a common choice for small companies within a few years.

By Joshua Kendall

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