UnitedHealth Group will lead an industry effort for more disclosure of health care costs

05/14/2014 11:39 AM

05/14/2014 10:53 PM

UnitedHealth Group will lead an industry effort to throw a spotlight on the prices paid for health care services, making their costs available to consumers on the Internet.

The effort, announced Wednesday and organized by a nonprofit called the Health Care Cost Institute, builds on steps the Obama administration has taken to shed light on prices charged by health care providers. Medicare, the program for the elderly and disabled, released databases last year and this year that showed what it paid hospitals and physicians, over the objections of both industries.

The new initiative is more constrained, offering consumers a “reference price” for health services in their communities, based on aggregated data from insurers, said David Newman, the executive director of the Washington-based institute. Customers of the insurers will get more precise information about prices, including how much they will have to pay out of pocket.

“The public has been clamoring for this,” Newman said. “This was the next natural step for us as an institute to evolve to.”

Because the insurers’ data are proprietary and “commercially sensitive,” he said, there will be limits on how the public can use it. Unlike the Medicare data, for example, consumers won’t be able to see how much in total an individual insurer paid a specific doctor, hospital or other provider, or download all of an insurer’s payment data.

Newman said the service is expected to be available in the first quarter of 2015.

The plan expands the mission of the institute, set up in 2011 to make data on private insurers’ costs available to researchers who had long been frustrated that most information available on health care prices came only from government programs.

UnitedHealth, Aetna and Humana will participate in the consumer program. The three companies, along with Kaiser Permanente, were original partners in the institute, agreeing to share information with researchers covering about 5 billion individual medical claims and $1 trillion in spending.

“We’re looking to reorient the health care system around the consumer, and we see this as another step in that process,” said Ethan Slavin, a spokesman for Aetna.

Kaiser, which owns hospitals and employs physicians, is not a participant in the new effort. At least two other insurers that the institute approached, Cigna and WellPoint, declined to be involved, spokesmen for the insurers said.

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