“We can’t be bought”: How journalism can bring down health care costs

As we prepare for the 2018 Lown Conference in April, we want to help you get ready as well. So we’re putting out interviews with some of our keynote speakers and panelists so you learn more about what to expect at the conference, and start getting excited!

This week we have an interview with Jeanne Pinder, founder and CEO of ClearHealthCosts, a journalism startup that brings transparency to the health care market by revealing prices of medical procedures and items. CHC partners with local media outlets, and uses crowdsourcing and data journalism to allow people to search for and share prices in their area. For her work with CHC — as an example, here’s their New Orleans partnership — Pinder was named one of Oprah’s “Health Heroes” for 2018.

Lown Institute: How did you first get involved in the issue of health care transparency?

Jeanne Pinder: I’ve been a journalist all my life and I was at The New York Times for 23 years. When I left, I had no concrete idea of what I wanted to do. The idea of variability in health care prices was very interesting to me, especially after I was billed $1419 for a medication I could buy for $2.47 online. Everyone has a story like this, but there’s a stigma against talking about money in health care.

“I was billed $1419 for a medication I could buy for $2.47 online.”
I think everyone should be able to understand their health care bills and shop for medical treatment the way they shop for anything else. I pitched the idea at a shark-tank-type contest at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, and I won, which is how Clear Health Costs got started. 
Lown: What’s different about what CHC is doing in the health care space?
Pinder: We give people real tools that they can use to look up prices and save them money. We partner with local media and build interactive software on partners’ websites, which people can use to look up prices of procedures and share what they paid. We call this a “Community-created guide to health costs.”
People also really appreciate the chance to talk about their experiences with health care costs. It’s important for people to know that someone is paying attention. It’s a personal topic, but increasingly people are so angry and despairing that they’ll come on camera and even show us our bills, because they want to help.
Lown: Have you heard about doctors giving these pricing tools to their patients? Or is it mostly patients comparing prices on their own?
PinderWe occasionally hear from doctors referring patients to our tools, although there are few private practices nowadays. Lots of formerly solo doctors have been swallowed up by hospitals, and they have to refer inside the hospital universe. But doctors have been helping patients compare prices for medications, because they know if the price is too high, the patient won’t fill the prescription. 
Lown: There have been studies on price shopping in health care that seem to show that people don’t “shop around” in health care. Have you seen that in your experience?
Pinder: No, I believe people do price shop in health care when they’re given the right tools. I’ve seen some issues in those studies. Some don’t take into account gender differences in managing health care; the survey over-samples men but we know that women make more of the health care decisions. They also don’t take into account the fact that most existing price tools provided by their insurance companies aren’t effective. When people use these tools, they get surprise costs anyway, so no wonder they don’t use it to shop for health care!
Lown: What other changes would you like to see in our health care system, beyond price transparency?
Pinder: We need good government, legislation, and regulation, but so far these have all failed, because there are armies of people figuring out how to circumvent these regulations. Journalism is the solution – we can’t be bought and sold, and this tends to scare incumbents, including hospitals and insurers. For us journalists, this is a great opportunity for us to help people. It’s our time to be gladiators.   
Lown: Any general advice for people wanting to save money on health costs?
Pinder: Even if you’re covered by insurance, you could end up paying more with insurance because your insurer is covering the most expensive provider. Often you can get a discount if you pay with cash – but get it in writing first.