Laurie Cook went shopping recently for a mammogram near her home in New Hampshire. Using an online tool provided through her insurer, she plugged in her ZIP code. Up popped facilities in her network, each with an incentive amount she would be paid if she chose it.
Paid? To get a test? It's part of a strategy to rein in health care spending by steering patients to the most cost-effective providers for non-emergency care.
State public employee insurance programs were among the early adopters of this approach. It is now finding a foothold among policymakers and in the private sector.
Scrolling through her options, Cook, a school nurse who is covered through New Hampshire's state employee health plan, found that choosing a certain facility scored her a $50 check in the mail.
She then used the website again to shop for a series of lab tests. "For a while there, I was getting a $25 check every few weeks," said Cook. The checks represented a share of the cost savings that resulted from her selections.
Lawmakers in nearby Maine took the idea further, recently enacting legislation that requires some private insurers to offer pay-to-shop incentives, part of a movement backed by a conservative foundation to get similar measures passed nationally.
Similar proposals are pending in a handful of other statehouses, including Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio.
"If insurance plans were serious about saving money, they would have been doing this stuff years ago," said Josh Archambault, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability, a limited-government advocacy group based in Naples, Fla., that promotes such "right-to-shop" laws. "This starts to peel back the black box in health care and make the conversation about value."
Still, some economists caution that shop-around initiatives alone cannot force the level of market-based change needed. While such shopping may make a difference for individual employers, they note it represents a tiny drop of the $3.3 trillion spent on health care in the U.S. each year.
"These are not crazy ideas," said David Asch, professor of medicine, medical ethics and health policy at the Penn Medicine Center for Health Care Innovation in Philadelphia. But it's hard to get consumers to change behavior -- and curbing health care spending is an even bigger task. Shopping incentives, he warned, "might be less effective than you think."