Business leaders call for medical bill transparency

The Ketchikan Medical Center plans improvements to its bill-estimation system. Local business leaders and some city council members want accurate cost estimates to be readily available. (KRBD file photo)

The Ketchikan Medical Center plans improvements to its bill-estimation system. Local business leaders and some city council members want accurate cost estimates to be readily available from all medical providers. (File photo by KRBD)

Ketchikan business leaders are calling on the city’s medical providers to share more information about their bills, as part of a larger discussion that’s attracting attention around the state and nation.

Some Ketchikan officials want to make it easier for residents to find out what medical procedures cost before they’re done.

The Ketchikan City Council brought up the issue earlier this fall.

Some members asked about passing an ordinance similar to one the Anchorage Assembly approved earlier this year.

Now, business leaders are asking for the same thing.

“We saw what the municipality of Anchorage did and we thought, ‘Wow, that’s a great idea,’” said Chelsea Goucher, president of the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.

The chamber recently shared a statement she authored in favor of medical bill transparency.

She said such a measure would level the playing field as well as improve the quality of life in the Southeast Alaska city, and that’s good for business.

“We think all providers will benefit from moving in that direction as well as the public,” she said. “Just to have choice, a better understanding of kind of what they’re getting into it before they get into it. It’s something that for one provider to do it and not the others doesn’t really solve the problem.”

Anchorage’s ordinance instructs hospitals, clinics and doctors’ offices to give patients a non-binding price estimate for services on request. It includes supplies and other costs involved in a procedure.

That effort, and the one in Ketchikan, are part of a growing nationwide movement toward medical cost transparency.

Some offices already make that information available, but not a lot.

“I think, on balance, it’s a rarity,” said Niall Brennan, president and CEO of the Health Care Cost Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit Washington, D.C.-based firm that collects and analyzes health-cost data.

“For every provider that has made an effort, there are dozens who deliberately or inadvertently make it extremely difficult for anybody to understand the true costs,” he said.

The Ketchikan City Council discussion focused on the local hospital.

Member Judy Zenge said patients have a right to know what procedures will cost – and that isn’t happening.

“We have a $52,567,000 hospital and a lot of people I know don’t go there. And part of it is because they can’t find out how much things are going to cost,” she said.

The city-owned Ketchikan Medical Center is managed by PeaceHealth, a Catholic health-care ministry.

Chief Administrative Officer Ed Freysinger acknowledged council members’ concerns – and those of the public. He said PeaceHealth also wants to increase billing transparency.

“We’re evaluating options to improve access to tools to gain that estimate,” he said. “Right now, we do it through a phone access. We are looking an option to have it available through our website.”

Such a system would cover all PeaceHealth facilities, which are in Alaska, Washington and Oregon, he said, but there’s no set date for completion.

Niall Brennan of the Health Care Cost Institute said an online system is best.

“Making somebody call a phone number to understand the cost of a service is not really acceptable in this day and age,” he said.

He said the information must be presented so it can be easily understood and downloaded onto an individual’s computer.

But, there’s disagreement.

“There are online systems, but they don’t always capture all the relevant information that people need to know,” said Becky Hultberg, president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association.

She said patients do better on the phone.

“We really encourage individual conversation, first with the insurer, because the insurer actually has the most information about the patient’s out-of-pocket costs,” she said. “Because they know the deductible, they know the co-payment and they understand the individual’s plan.”

And if that doesn’t work, she advises patients call the hospital or other provider. Those who are uninsured or have high deductibles should do the same – and ask about discounts or financial assistance.

The Ketchikan City Council plans to discuss the issue in more detail at a Dec. 21 meeting.

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