BOSTON (AP) – Internet shoppers in Massachusetts could soon add chest X-rays, ultrasounds and tonsillectomies to their virtual shopping carts under a key provision of the state’s ambitious new health care reform law.

One of the goals of the new law is to drive down the cost of health care in part by arming consumers with the ability to compare prices on everything from asthma inhalers to Caesarean sections.

The law requires the state to set up a Web site that not only allows consumers to compare the quality of hospitals and clinics, but would also include the average payment each charges for a range of services, including office visits, diagnostic tests, surgeries and other therapies.

“Most consumers who go in for a mammography or testing or radiology have no information on the quality or price,” said Amy Lischko, commissioner of the Division of Health Care Finance and Policy. “If you have to pay a 20 percent co-payment you are going to be very interested in looking at those prices.”

The state already runs a Web site that includes some information – with major loopholes.

Instead of listing an actual average dollar amount for an operation or procedure, the site only lists whether a hospital is among the most expensive, middle or least expensive when compared to others.

The new Web site will have prices, not only for hospitals, but for the cost of prescriptions at individual pharmacies.

That should be helpful those who want to compare prices, especially in non-emergency situations.

“Maternity is a big area where consumers shop around for quality and price,” Lischko said.

Cost can vary widely, even in the same geographic area.

The average delivery cost for a low-weight baby in the Boston area jumps from $1,800 at Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Hospital to $5,300 at Massachusetts General Hospital, according to the state Division of Health Care Finance and Policy.

Being able to compare pharmacy prices could also be a big help for those on fixed incomes who don’t have prescription insurance coverage.

To post the hospital prices, the state first has to collect raw data from major insurers. To find the average price for a knee replacement at a specific hospital, for example, the state will ask each of the major insurers, like Harvard Pilgrim Health Care or Blue Cross and Blue Shield, how much the hospital charges them – and then come up with an average.

Some health care providers are leery about the new Web site.

“Transparency is a good direction, but strong public disclosure needs to be backed up with accurate information,” said Massachusetts Hospital Association spokesman Paul Wingle.

Hospitals would prefer the state use clinical records that reflect the actual care provided to patients, rather than using billing information, to get a fuller picture of costs, he said.

Wingle also said hospitals were concerned that the statistics might not take into account that some hospitals may serve a population – like the elderly – who may require more expensive care for the same kind of operation.

“We don’t think consumers should ever make health care decisions based on Web sites, even the best Web sites,” he said.

Not everyone is worried.

Charles Baker, president and CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, said posting information on a Web site is key to setting the groundwork for a public discussion on health care.

“If you really want to improve quality and create value and do something about cost, the first thing you have to decide is what you’re going to measure and how you keep score,” he said.

Other states have already begun posting similar information.

Visitors to a Web site maintained by the New Hampshire Department of Insurance can investigate the costs of certain procedures and operations. The average price for a hip replacement in the Granite State, for example, is $24,162, with actual costs ranging from as low as $11,140 and as high as $41,656.

In Florida, consumers can compare the price of prescriptions at pharmacies across a geographic area. A search for the cost of the same prescription for Flonase allergy nasal spray in the Miami area, for example, found prices ranging from $69 to $150.

The new health care reform law, signed by Gov. Mitt Romney in April, makes Massachusetts the first state to require health insurance for virtually all its citizens, including the state’s estimated 500,000 uninsured.

Under the new law, the Web site must be up and running by July, although it will initially consist of a link to the state’s existing Web site. Lischko said she hopes to have the additional information online as soon as the state can collect the data.



On the Net:

Massachusetts Health Care Quality and Cost Information: www.mass.gov/healthcareqc

Florida prescription drug web site: www.myfloridarx.com

New Hampshire HealthCost web site: www.nhhealthcost.org


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