National Consumer Protection Week: A Look at Health Care Cost and Quality Information

Posted on March 05, 2015

Whether you’re in the market for a new car or a smartphone service provider, you can find websites with reviews, price comparisons, and other information for the savvy shopper.

But what if you need a new hip, and you want to shop around, or at least find out what it’s likely to cost you?

When it comes to health care, it’s hard for consumers to find meaningful information. Today, as part of National Consumer Protection Week, we review some of the tools that are meant to help you, the consumer, find information on health care costs and providers.

Cost and Quality Comparison Options

We looked at 5 Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) websites that are meant to help consumers compare different health care providers.  They are: Nursing Home Compare, Dialysis Compare, Home Health Compare, Hospital Compare, and Physician Compare. We also reviewed 2 private consumer health cost/quality websites.

We found weaknesses in the CMS sites, which did not

  • use plain, easily-understandable language—such as clear language and symbols;
  • present data in meaningful ways—such as personalized information on out-of-pocket costs, or helpful information on clinical outcomes or patient satisfaction; or
  • help consumers get the right information for informed, cost-effective decision making— such as by allowing users to combine cost and quality information to assess value or anticipate costs.

Further, in developing how the sites present cost and quality information, we found that CMS paid more attention to providers’ concerns than consumers’.

We made multiple recommendations to CMS to improve these websites. For instance, we suggested that the sites include, to the extent feasible, estimated out-of-pocket costs for Medicare beneficiaries for common treatments that can be planned in advance, such as colonoscopies.

What We Found about Health Care Cost and Quality

In our review of these comparison websites, we found that some health care providers were paid thousands of dollars more than others for the same service in the same geographic area. For example, in 2014, depending on the provider and setting, the costs for

  • maternity care in Boston ranged between $6,834 and $21,554;
  • laparoscopic gallbladder surgery in the Denver area ranged between $3,281 and $18,770; and
  • an MRI of the lower back in the Indianapolis, Indiana area ranged between $277 and $5,184.

Moreover, information from these websites show that price is not tied to quality, regardless of the treatment and geographic area—in the Boston maternity care example, the hospitals were all highly rated. This is a problem, given that many consumers assume that all providers offer good quality care, while others have the misconception that higher costs indicate higher quality.

Listen to our podcast for more information on health care price transparency:



GAO Contacts
Linda Kohn