Comparison shopping for health care goes online

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Carol site
Carol.com is a Web site designed to help consumers get the information they need to get good, cost-effective medical care.
Photo Courtesy of Carol.com

Carol.com is the brainchild of some of the same players who formed Definity Health. That's the venture that brought consumer-driven health care plans to the insurance market a few years ago.

The new for-profit Web site is designed to complement those and other high-deductible plans by giving consumers the information they need to get good, cost-effective medical care. Most of the information is supplied directly by Carol's 30 tenants. These are hospitals, clinics and specialty groups that pay a fee to list their services and prices on the Web site.

Carol founder
Tony Miller says he was a frustrated consumer who wanted to make shopping for health care easier.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

Carol CEO Tony Miller says flu vaccinations are an example of a service with a big difference in prices from clinic to clinic. He noticed the price range a few weeks ago when he was testing out the Carol site. But when Miller looked at the vaccination page during a recent demonstration he saw that the price gap had narrowed considerably.

"You know what has happened since the last time I've been on this site? And I wish I could show this to you historically. I'll have to go back and see if I can archive it. But when we first produced these care packages, Park Nicollet was pricing their base price at $213 versus Minute Clinic's $30," says Miller.

Now the flu vaccination at Park Nicollet is listed at $34. That's a price drop of $183. Miller says it's proof that competition in health care is good for consumers.

"The current way we are running this system has run its course and we have to completely change the way health care works if we're going to actually fix it."

"Park Nicollet had the opportunity to come in and review their care packages and say, $213, what consumer in their right mind is going to come buy a flu vaccine from us when Minute Clinic is offering it at $30? In this case I would tell you that Carol is proving that it worked," says Miller.

Park Nicollet CEO David Wessner says he doesn't know the details of his clinic's flu vaccination repricing. But he doesn't doubt that Park Nicollet did drop its fee after seeing it posted next to Minute Clinic's price.

"I think that is what you'll see with this type of comparison," says Wessner. "There will be competition on price and how convenient it is and that's the sort of thing that has been missing in health care is really how do you compete on value."

Wessner says Park Nicollet is not afraid to compete on price. But he says many patients are also looking for high quality care. He thinks the Web site's exposure will give Park Nicollet a chance to distinguish the differences in its care from its competitors.

Competition is good
Park Nicollet CEO David Wessner says by making prices more visible to consumers, some services will become more affordable.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

For now, Carol users have to rely on the word of tenants when it comes to quality. The Web site doesn't include any of the clinic and hospital data collected by other quality measurement groups in the state. That's because there's currently no way to apply the data to the type of bundled health care packages offered on Carol.com.

That's a weakness the Web site will hopefully overcome soon, says HealthPartners President and CEO Mary Brainerd. She's optimistic that Carol.com will bring significant innovation to the health care market. HealthPartners was one of the first tenants to join the site.

Carol gives providers the flexibility to design packages that might be more effective than traditional care, Brainerd says.

"For example, phone care might be included in a care package, e-care visits with your doctor could be included in a care package, support services from a nurse on the phone might be part of the picture, group visits could be part of a care package," says Brainerd.

Big step forward
HealthPartners President and CEO Mary Brainerd says the Carol site presents health care services in packages that are easy to compare and easy to understand. She says that makes it more likely that consumers will use the site to make buying decisions.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

Ideas like this are exactly what Tony Miller says he was hoping for when he launched Carol.

"The current way we are running this system has run its course," says Miller. "We have to completely change the way health care works if we're going to actually fix it."

Miller says a site like Carol can really only work in a metropolitan area where there's health care competition. So the site only includes tenants from the Twin Cities area. Miller says if the site is successful, he hopes to offer it in other metropolitan areas throughout the U.S.

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