Health Care

A $79 MRI? $29 teeth cleaning? Discount medical shopping site launches in Kansas City

A new website launching first in Kansas City aims to help consumers buy medical care the same way they might buy flights and hotel rooms: online, with upfront pricing.

And, like some of the deals advertised on travel sites, some of the prices can be steeply discounted, like $29 for a teeth cleaning with X-rays, or $79 for a 60-minute MRI.

Called “Sesame” (as in “open sesame”), the Brooklyn-based tech start-up has gone live with the test version of CEO David Goldhill said this week that Kansas Citians are warming to it quickly.

“We’ve had a lot of customers,” Goldhill said. “We aren’t actually disclosing it, but it’s been a quick take-up on it. Frankly faster than we expected.”

Sesame is aimed at consumers who don’t want to use health insurance, either because they don’t have it or because they have a high deductible.

Participating doctors, dentists and other medical providers post their upcoming open appointment times to the site, offering discounted rates to anyone willing to pay up front to lock in an appointment. Eventually, Goldhill said, the company plans to make money by charging a fee on each of those transactions.

Sesame is a Brooklyn-based tech start-up launching first in Kansas City.

Goldhill said the company also intends to expand at some point, but it chose Kansas City to start testing the site a few months ago for a few reasons. It’s a “central city with lots of youthful patients,” Goldhill said, and it has a relatively large community of direct primary care doctors — independent physicians who don’t take health insurance (largely because of the billing hassles) and instead charge their patients directly.

Those doctors already had experience helping out-of-pocket patients find the best prices on things like MRIs, lab tests and even surgeries. Goldhill said the doctors helped Sesame vet providers who signed up initially to make sure they can deliver quality care as well as low prices.

Ryan Neuhofel, a direct primary care doctor in Lawrence, is Sesame’s chief medical adviser. He described it as “somewhat like an Expedia for health care” and said the site is already handling about 20 to 30 bookings a day.

“The idea of Sesame is that people know upfront, 100%, that this is what it’s going to cost,” Neuhofel said, as opposed to getting a bill weeks later with unexpected charges.

Some of the discounts offered on the site this week were modest, like a well-woman checkup including PAP smear, breast exam and cervical exam for $140. Others, like the $79 MRI at Diagnostic Radiology Institute in Mission, could save patients thousands compared to having the imaging done at a hospital.

Sherri Donaldson, a nurse and co-office manager of the institute, said people have been coming through the door almost nonstop since the deal went online.

“We are slammed,” Donaldson said. “I mean, it’s been such a pent-up need for patients who need the service and have access to it through Sesame.”

Diagnostic Radiology Institute.JPG
Diagnostic Radiology Institute at 6444 Metcalf Ave. in Mission. Google

Donaldson said nearly every MRI performed reveals medical issues that need to be addressed because the patients have been in pain for awhile. They had the required MRI order from their doctors, but didn’t think they could afford the exam.

“From a nursing perspective, to be able to see patients come in here, get an answer on a malady they have been dealing with that they didn’t think they’d ever be able to get an answer to, it’s heartwarming as a medical professional,” Donaldson said.

About 100 providers are signed up with Sesame at this point, Neuhofel said, and about half are physicians. The rest are mainly dentists, optometrists and physical therapists. They’re offering hundreds of services, including tests like mammograms and some minor procedures.

He acknowledged that there are limitations to what the site can provide, given that certain medical specialists are so much in demand they probably have no reason to offer discounted appointments to Sesame or anyone else.

“There are some areas — like really, really expensive surgeries — that we’re probably not going to get into doing,” Neuhofel said.

Other websites are trying similar models for self-pay patients. MediBid allows consumers to post the procedure they need online and take bids from doctors across the country. MD Save takes the various costs associated with a procedure (surgeon, anesthesiologist, nurses, supplies, etc.) and combines them in one flat rate.

Goldhill said Sesame’s goal is to eventually do that and more, with a more user-friendly website.

“Our ambition is really to be full scope,” Goldhill said. “That it’s a great one-stop shop for patients who know they can find care for almost anything. And we’re not there yet, but we’re new.”

Kansas City Star health reporter Andy Marso was part of a Pulitzer Prize-finalist team at The Star and previously won state and regional awards at the Topeka Capital-Journal and Kansas Health Institute News Service. He has written two books, including one about his near-fatal bout with meningitis.