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Insurance companies’ cost calculators shed more light on healthcare shopping

The healthcare shopping experience is largely like a black hole from which no light can come out. Now, however, insurance companies are making an effort to shed light in these dark places. They are providing more information on their websites to help members estimate medical costs and treatment options, according to a “secret shopper” report […]

The healthcare shopping experience is largely like a black hole from which no light can come out.

Now, however, insurance companies are making an effort to shed light in these dark places. They are providing more information on their websites to help members estimate medical costs and treatment options, according to a “secret shopper” report released recently by Pacific Business Group on Health.

The firm decided to analyze the cost calculators that big insurance companies like Aetna, Anthem, Cigna,  HealthNet, Kaiser Permanente and UnitedHealth offer to their members specifically. The report found that these online tools are making shopping for healthcare more transparent, said Amanda Goltz, senior manager at the Pacific Business Group on Health, in an email.

“The plan cost estimator tools have increased in functionality and breadth considerably over the past year, perhaps driven by employer and consumer demand, perhaps driven by pressure from independent cost calculator vendors such as Castlight and Thomson Reuters,” Goltz said.

Although the analysis was not done to rank or compare these cost calculators from different plans, the report found that when it  comes to shopping and budgeting for medical service, Anthem and Cigna got a  “high,” rating whereas Kaiser Permanente and HealthNet got a “low.” Aetna received a “medium” rating whereas UnitedHealth received a “medium-low.”

The standings were flipped when it came to a member’s ability to compare allowed physician fees. Here Aetna and UnitedHealth received a “high” rating whereas others like Kaiser Permanente and Anthem do not provide members this functionality. Cigna got a medium rating because the online tool didn’t allow for side-by-side comparisons. And HealthNet received a low rating because members can see allowed physician fees for a particular episode of care, but not across various providers.

When it came to shopping for medications, Aetna and HealthNet garnered a “high” rating. Kaiser and HealthNet got a “low” rating while this functionality is not provided by neither Cigna nor UnitedHealth.

For a full, side-by-side comparison of how the plans were judged, click here.