By Julie Appleby
Need medical treatment this year and want to nail down your out-of-pocket costs before you walk into the doctor’s office? There’s a new tool for that, at least for insured patients.
As of Jan. 1, health insurers and employers that offer health plans must provide online calculators for patients to get detailed estimates of what they will owe — taking into account deductibles and copayments — for a range of services and drugs.
It’s the latest effort in an ongoing movement to make prices and upfront cost comparisons possible in a business known for its opaqueness.
Insurers must make the cost information available for 500 nonemergency services considered “shoppable,” meaning patients generally have time to consider their options. The federal requirement stems from the Transparency in Coverage rule finalized in 2020.
So how will it work?
Patients, knowing they need a specific treatment, drug, or medical service, first log on to the cost estimator on a website offered through their insurer or, for some, their employer. Next, they can search for the care they need by billing code, which many patients may not have; or by a general description, like “repair of knee joint,” or “MRI of abdomen.” They can also enter a hospital’s or physician’s name or the dosage amount of a drug for which they are seeking price information.
Not all drugs or services will be available in the first year of the tools’ rollout, but the required 500-item list covers a wide swath of medical services, from acne surgery to X-rays.
Once the information is entered, the calculators are supposed to produce real-time estimates of a patient’s out-of-pocket cost.