Auditor: Consumers should get more health care information

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Consumers should have access to more health care information so they can compare prices and quality among providers and procedures, Vermont's auditor said Friday.

Auditor of Accounts Doug Hoffer told the House Health Care Committee that Vermont collects information that could form the backbone of a consumer friendly website in a database called the Vermont Health Care Uniform Reporting and Evaluation System.

A website geared to consumer access would allow people to enter information including where they live, what kind of insurance coverage they have and how far they're willing to drive. The website would then be able to show what providers charge for a particular service, Hoffer said.

The database is overseen by the state's Green Mountain Care Board, a five-member panel responsible for several projects aimed at lowering costs and improving access to health care.

Board Chairman Al Gobeille said in an interview that it was proceeding slowly because the idea of a consumer information website could bring unintended consequences.

He described a case in which a patient faced a choice of a knee replacement costing $30,000 and another costing $21,000, but in either case, the patient would pay a $3,000 deductible.

Research shows that "people pick the higher price, thinking that it's better quality," even when there's no evidence of that, Gobeille said. As a result of that, health care system costs go up, he said.

The House committee took no immediate action on the proposal Friday.

State Rep. George Till, an obstetrician-gynecologist at the University of Vermont Medical Center, said he understands the appeal of Hoffer's idea, but he urged caution.

"You've got to make sure you're doing an apples-to-apples comparison," said Till, a Jericho Democrat and former member of the Health Care Committee.

Comparing academic medical centers like UVM and the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center with Vermont's smaller community hospitals "is going to make the academic medical centers look not so good," Till said.

That applies both on cost and quality — often a result of the fact that the smaller hospitals send their tough cases to the highly trained specialists at UVM and Dartmouth, Till said.

"What are my outcomes compared to a place that doesn't deal with any complicated cases?" Till asked. "That's the messiness of the whole quality and cost comparison."

Hoffer said several recent studies have found costs tend to be reduced in states that provide better consumer information.

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