Doctor Disruption

Clear Health Costs Wants to Save You From Medical Sticker Shock

Opening your bill shouldn't put you back in the hospital.
 Clear Health Costs Wants to Save You From Medical Sticker Shock

Ms. Pinder at Women’s Demo Night. (Photo: Erica Schwiegershausen)

Ever opened a letter from a doctor to discover an unexpectedly, eye-poppingly enormous bill? Well, one New York startup wants to make sure that never happens again, by providing a platform that allows the average medical consumer to compare prices.

It’s a concept that ought to appeal to anyone in a position to be cost conscious–whether uninsured, out of network, stuck with a high deductible plan, or just plain offended by overpaying.

Betabeat first encountered Clear Health Costs at the Women’s Demo Night organized by New York Tech Meetup last month. In advance of the company’s debut on the mainstage at tonight’s meetup, Betabeat asked founder and CEO Jeanne Pinder to tell us a little more.

Appropriately, it all began with a dire case of sticker shock. “I got a bill once from a hospital that included a charge for $1,419 for a drug that I found I could buy online for $2.47,” she told Betabeat.

While it seems it ought to be fairly straightforward to inquire what costs what and why, Ms. Pinder found that, “the more you ask, the more complicated and incomprehensible it becomes.”

“You should be able to know what stuff costs,” she said. Easier said than done, it seems.

Ms. Pinder took a buyout from the New York Times in 2009 and, unsure of her next move, took a class on entrepreneurial journalism at CUNY, with Jeff Jarvis. “The class was about finding new ways of doing journalism and finding new ways of telling people stuff.” As part of the course, students created and pitched business ideas to a panel of judges, who had $50,000 in foundation cash to dole out. Ms. Pinder took home $20,000 worth of the jackpot and began fleshing out her concept.

Another $20,000 from the International Women’s Media Foundation followed,  as well as a third grant from the McCormick Foundation.

But despite the early awards, the reaction wasn’t universally enthusiastic. Many people she approached in the healthcare sector apparently reacted with GIF-worthy befuddlement. “Quite often their response was, ‘You can’t do that. Tell people what stuff costs? Which price?’” Nowadays, however, the response is more like: “It’s really exciting, you’re where you need to be,” she said.

Upon landing on the site, a visitor will see several procedures, with highest and lowest prices. Nor are these merely nickel-and-dime differences. An urgent care visit ranges from $20 to $350; a cardio stress test might cost either $150 or $1790.

There are a couple of sources for that information. “We’re doing basic shoe-leather reporting, calling providers and asking them for their prices, their cash or self-paid price for a range of procedures,” Ms. Pinder said. She also pointed Betabeat to a feature called the PriceMap Interactive. Typing in “cervical spinal fusion” for New York City brings up a broad range of prices–the varying amounts Medicare paid for the procedure locally over a year.

Then there’s the crowdsourcing experiment, which might be the most attention-gathering aspect of this project. As a kind of proof of concept, Clear Health Costs asked women across New York City to divulge what they paid for birth control. A single prescription might cost $17 or $50 just a few blocks away.

“As far as we can tell, people are really interested in telling their stories about what they’re paying for things,” said Ms. Pinder. The team is working on ways to flag information so it’ll be clear what’s crowdsourced, as well as making it easier for people to submit their contributions. “That’s one of our challenges,” she admitted.

At the moment, however, most of the information is still either sourced by freelance journalists or drawn from databases and price lists available online.

In terms of the monetization, Ms. Pinder expects there’ll be “sponsorships or essentially advertising from providers who want access to that cash-paying customer,” adding that even though the functionality isn’t fully integrated into the design yet, “we’re getting really good response.” She also anticipates business-to-business opportunities that “remain to be seen, depending on how quickly we can get up and running with more robust data.”

It sounds like Ms. Pinder is merely enjoying the process, in the meantime. “Being part of the startup culture here in New York is just thrilling,” she said.

Follow Kelly Faircloth on Twitter or via RSS. kfaircloth@observer.com