Medicare made waves earlier this year by releasing the prices that hospitals charge for the most common procedures.
North Carolina now wants to take a step further: Gov. Pat McCrory (R) signed legislation last week that will require hospitals to publish the prices that they negotiate with insurers.
This data has the potential to be significantly more useful for consumers. The prices that hospitals charge are, essentially, sticker prices. Insurance plans usually negotiate a rate lower than that opening bid. The data that North Carolina will make public is the actual amount that hospitals end up charging health plans for their services. Beginning in June 2014, the state's Health and Human Services Web site will post that information.
That means that, in North Carolina, someone undergoing surgery could comparison shop between hospitals before making an appointment, seeing where he or she might get the best deal.
This data could become especially important given the trends we're seeing in the health insurance market: Employers are asking employees to take on a bigger share of their premiums, in the form of much larger deductibles. When individuals are paying out-of- pocket for their care, or even a hefty co-insurance fee, the incentive to shop on price becomes a whole lot stronger.
Right now, shopping on price is really hard; hospitals tend to keep the deals they've negotiated with insurers private, seeing that information as a competitive advantage. If they're getting a health plan to pay a high rate for a given procedure, would they really want the hospital down the street to know.
The data we've seen so far on health care prices suggests we're likely to see pretty significant variation. Data compiled by the private health cost firm Castlight found that, here in the District of Columbia, and MRI can cost anywhere between $400 and $1,800.
Now North Carolina is about to make data like that a whole lot more accessible, possibly changing the way that people there seek health care treatments.