Health Cost Literacy: “How much is that?”

The title of this post asks the $3.5 trillion-with-a-T question in American healthcare: how much is that? It often feels like healthcare is split into two camps, with one side working away feverishly to find more cures for life-threatening conditions like cancer and ALS, while the other side is working at an equally feverish pace to figure out just how many millions of dollars they can make of the latest breakthrough.

A recent example of this Tale of Two Healthcares was the roaring headlines about the first FDA-approved gene therapy, Kymriah (tisagenlecleucel), for leukemia. The business side of healthcare was ecstatic, pricing the drug at $475,000, which made Wall St. happy, and Novartis (the drug’s maker) ecstatic. The patient side of healthcare? Not so much.

Kymriah is an extreme example of healthcare pricing, but even trying to get a CT scan can turn into a trip down the rabbit hole, if you try to find out before the scan how much it will cost you. Asking “how much?” can seem like shouting down a well the first time you do it – you’ll hear an echo, because the person you’re asking will likely say “how much?” right back, in total shock at the question. However, asking questions is how we get answers, right?

Here are tips for asking “how much is that?” and getting meaningful answers:

  • Find out if your insurer has a cost-estimator tool. If so, use it. For everything required for your care. You’ll need the insurance billing code for the test, scan, or procedure (called the CPT code), so get that from your doctor’s billing office.
  • Use online price-check tools like Clear Health Costs or Fair Health Consumer to reality-check the pricing information you get from your insurer’s cost-estimator tool.
  • When your doctor refers you to a lab for testing, or an imaging center for scans, ask if they know what the cost is. They likely won’t at first, but the more of us who ask the question the more they’ll want to know the answer.
  • Call around to labs and imaging centers in your insurer’s network to ask about their cash price for the test or scan that’s been ordered for you. Depending on the cash price, you might be better off not using your insurance, and actually paying cash for the test or scan. If you have a high-deductible plan, you’ll need to assess which medical services are worth going off-the-books for if you haven’t yet met your annual deductible.

I know a lot about “how much is that?” because I was uninsured for five years after my own cancer treatment ended. I discovered that asking the question got me the answers I needed, and I could choose the providers that could give me a cash price for the mammograms and follow-up oncology services I needed. I’ve continued to use the simple question “how much is that?” every time a doctor has ordered tests or scans, because even with insurance, you’ll wind up with a bill for some part of the service.

If we all work together, asking “how much is that?” before receiving any medical service, we’ll start to shift the system, and the culture of healthcare. It takes a village, not just to raise a child, but also to change a status quo.

It’s your turn. Start asking.