Friday, March 29, 2013

A Personal Experience with Medical Cost Containment

When I saw my primary care physician earlier this week he gave me a pep talk about scheduling the colonoscopy I'd been dawdling on doing. I decided it was time to follow his advice.

I had two reasons for being concerned about how much the colonoscopy would cost. First, from the self-centered perspective, my insurance includes a $1500 deductible, so I would be paying some or all of the cost on my own nickel. Second, from the perspective of a concerned citizen, I believe we all have a moral responsibility to (a) take care of our health (b) at the lowest cost to collective insurance funds. If the test cost more than my deductible my fellow insurees will be paying for my charges, and I should consider their financial well-being just as I consider my own.

I'd recently received notice that my self-insured employer offers a service called SaveOn, provided by Tandem Care, a five year old New Hampshire company that gives patients comparative cost information on services within their insurance network. If we're already scheduled to go to a "low cost" provider, we get a $10 reward simply for having called the SaveOn program. If we're scheduled for a high cost provider and choose to go to a lower cost provider instead, we get a reward of $25 to $75, depending on the cost of the procedure.

I receive my care from Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, a large non-profit, multi-specialty group practice in Massachusetts. I preferred to have the colonoscopy done at the HVMA facility. Doing so would ensure the best coordination of information flow and followup. But suppose an alternative of good enough quality cost $500 less? Would coordination be worth that much additional cost to me?

I called the SaveOn service with some trepidation. The service itself was excellent. A nurse answered my call after one ring. She took my information efficiently and called me back within 15 minutes. Happily, the site I'd been referred to within the group practice was considered a "low cost provider." That spared me the challenge of (a) deciding how much additional cost continuity of care was worth to me and (b) chiding my medical team for being "high cost." The SaveOn nurse told me I'd receive a $10 check after the procedure was done.

Within the cockamamie U.S. health "system," Tandem Care/SaveOn are providing a valuable service. In our consumer role it helps us take care of ourselves at a lower cost. Even if our insurance does not include a deductible - something that is increasingly rare nowadays - the reward for choosing a lower cost provider is enough to matter to us. In our citizen role the program helps us reduce overall costs to the body politic, and, at the same time, educates us to think about costs in health care as we do in virtually every other aspect of our lives.

For decades, we in the U.S. have been searching desperately for ways to make health care less costly. None of the gimmicks we try will work unless we citizens embrace the effort. If we had a national system with a budget paid for via our taxes the way most other developed countries do we'd be invested in getting the most bang for our bucks. But in the highly fragmented "system" we have, the relationship between overall costs and the choices we make as individuals is largely invisible to us. My little experience with SaveOn shows how smart systems can help to make us less stupid about costs!

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