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A Florida company’s price comparison/advance booking Web site for radiology services has proven popular with providers and is catching on with consumers. Does that mean my dire speculation last week about the potential perils of price transparency for imaging was all wrong?

Maybe. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time I was all wrong. But, from a provider’s point of view, Save On Medical is a means to attract private-pay patients and reduce downtime. It’s not really a move toward full price transparency.

Last week’s post mentioned a reporter’s unsuccessful quest to learn in advance what an MRI would cost. Her insurance covered that MRI, and the three providers she contacted wouldn’t, or couldn’t (perhaps because of contractual obligations to the insurer), divulge prices.

Save On Medical, on the other hand, deals only with private-pay patients. Atlantic Health Solutions, a Tampa-based radiology management company, started the Web site four years ago as a price directory. A year ago, according to Healthcare Payer News, it added the booking function.

About 15,000 people have used the site so far, according to Matt Schneider, Atlantic Health’s vice president of marketing. About 7 percent of those have booked appointments. Similar sites have been sprouting, including two we’ve reported on, CarePilot and BidOnHealth (although something seems to have gone awry with the latter site).

At Save On Medical, a consumer searches for nearby providers of specific procedures—a leg MRI, for example. The site has contracts with providers across most of Florida, in New York City, and in parts of 19 other states, according to Healthcare Payer News.

A list pops up, with prices. The consumer selects a provider. The provider contacts the consumer and arranges an appointment time. The consumer then pays in advance—a big advantage for providers. Schneider told imagingBiz:

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but sometimes I’ve made a reservation and then continued to call around and forgotten to cancel the first reservation when I found a better deal elsewhere. Patients who are self pay and are shopping around do this, which leads to more no-shows for these patients.

Consumers use the site free; providers pay a booking fee to Save On Medical for each appointment.

I had a leg MRI a couple of months ago. I live in Birmingham, Alabama, an area not covered by Save On Medical. Had I still lived in St. Petersburg, Florida, I could have paid $400 for the procedure at a clinic less than two miles from my old house.

The clinic where I had the MRI theoretically charged $1,274. My insurer actually reimbursed $407, and I added a $10 co-pay. Factoring in the expense of dealing with the insurer and billing me for the co-pay, the clinic might have come out ahead charging $400 cash in advance, even with the booking fee—especially if it could have scheduled me to fill an empty slot in the scanner’s schedule.

Still, price transparency for insured procedures isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. Especially if insurers have anything to say about it.

Related seminar: The Business of Radiology


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