Are health plan cost estimator tools the best kept secret in benefits?

From time to time, employers invite me to review their benefits programs, provide recommendations and audition to become their benefits consultant. A few weeks ago, I met with a company’s owner, chief financial officer and human resources director. As you might guess, the majority of our conversation focused on the group health plan.

This employer had recently launched a qualified high-deductible health plan, and the owner was especially frustrated with the cumbersome, laborious process of trying to research the cost of his care ahead of time so that he could obtain the best value for his personal healthcare spend. He described a recent episode during which he called the health insurer directly to determine what the cost of a procedure would be at various facilities in town. The health insurer wouldn’t provide the information. Thus, he then began calling around to the facilities directly, citing the health plan network and asking for pricing for the procedure. Not surprisingly, the facilities were less than forthcoming.

At the end of his story, I paused and asked, “Have you ever tried using your health plan’s online cost estimator tool?”

“Online cost estimator tool?” he replied inquisitively. “No, never heard of it.”

No one else in the room had heard of it, either. The health insurer hadn’t mentioned it, their benefits broker hadn’t mentioned it and the technology wasn’t presented to their employees during the rollout of the HDHP. And, as this business owner had only met me 12 minutes earlier, he probably wondered if I had just placed one foot in the ether. He looked around at his colleagues and asked, “Good grief, if this tool has been available all along, why wouldn’t our broker or the vendor have mentioned it before now? Zack, are you sure we have access to this tool?”

“I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t have access,” I offered. “Your vendor cites this tool as the primary way to transform enrollees into educated healthcare consumers.”

Seconds later, the meeting had journeyed out of the boardroom and into the owner’s office. After he logged on to the vendor’s site, I pointed out the location of the cost estimator tool, and he took 25 seconds to successfully complete the pricing research it had previously taken him an hour to unsuccessfully complete telephonically. Moreover, the estimated cost matched his underlying experience.

It’s been 15 years since the Treasury Department first approved health reimbursement accounts and 13 years since the Medicare Modernization Act ushered in health savings accounts. A child born the year HRAs were approved will soon have her driver’s license. Thus, for many of us, the concepts of healthcare consumerism, HRAs, HSAs and online pricing tools are about as novel as power windows in a sedan.

But, just as a Chevy Malibu salesman probably doesn’t make a big deal out of power windows, I wonder if we’re doing the same regarding healthcare consumerism tools. Perhaps we should take a moment to remind ourselves that, for example, while only 18% of midsize employers offered an HDHP prior to the advent of the Affordable Care Act, almost 50% presently do so:

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.