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Survey: Few Consumers Are Using Quality, Price Information to Make Health Care Decisions

Less than a third report seeing information comparing doctors, hospitals

Despite the government’s push to make health information more available, few people use concrete information about doctors or hospitals to obtain better care at lower prices, according to a new poll.

Prices for the health care industry have historically been concealed and convoluted, unlike those for most other businesses, according to the report. The 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act aimed to make such information more transparent. People shopping for insurance can now compare the prices of competing plans through online marketplaces, including premiums, deductibles, and their share of any medical expenses. The federal government also published more than 100 quality ratings about hospitals, as do some large private insurers. Private groups such as Consumer Reports and U.S. News & World Report also rate providers, and Internet forums, such as Yelp, are now littered with easily accessible opinions.

In the survey, released by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 31% of the respondents reported seeing information comparing doctors, hospitals, and health insurance plans in the past 12 months. However, when asked more specifically if they had seen information comparing prices or quality across plans and providers, fewer than 1 in 5 said they had seen this kind of information. Even fewer reported actually using this information in making decisions about doctors, hospitals, or health insurance plans.

Two out of three people said it is still difficult to know how much specific doctors or hospitals charge for medical treatments or procedures.

The poll found that this information rarely makes a difference, however. About 6% of people ever used quality information in making a decision regarding an insurer, hospital, or doctor, and fewer than 9% used information about prices, most commonly in relation to health plans. Only 3% said they used price information about physicians, the poll found.

This lack of practical information may be related to another major finding from the poll: people are overconfident about their ability to pay medical bills without financial strain.

A majority of people told pollsters they had enough insurance coverage or money to pay for their usual medical costs or for an unplanned hospitalization. A majority also said paying insurance premiums, deductibles, and their share of medical costs was relatively easy.

However, when asked how they would handle an unanticipated $500 medical bill, only 47% of insured adults under 65 said they would pay the bill in full immediately. The others said they would put it on a credit card and pay it over time, borrow money, or not be able to pay the bill at all. Not surprisingly, those bills would be a bigger problem for those who lacked insurance.

If the medical bill were $1,500 — a sum that is less than the deductible in many insurance plans — 25% of people with insurance thought they could pay it off immediately. Another 29% said they would add it to their credit card debt, and 25% said they could not pay it at all.

The poll was conducted April 8–14 among 1,506 adults.

Sources: Kaiser Health News; April 21, 2015; and Kaiser Family Foundation Tracking Poll; April 21, 2015.

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