Last month, I was traveling to my daughter's college commencement in Corvallis, OR, and saw an interesting billboard along the way, advertising a $485 magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) exam. We are so unaccustomed to seeing healthcare businesses try to compete on price that this billboard took me by surprise.
And then I thought to myself, would I use this service if I needed an MRI? Fortunately, I have health insurance through my employer, so am able to get exams like an MRI without having to shop based on price. Of course, I am not sure I would want shop for something that might be serious for my health on the basis of price alone, even though I have to admit that I have no idea (nor does anyone, really) whether the quality of this $485 MRI or the one costing fourfold more that most other local health care institutions offer is better or worse. Still, I feel some comfort in knowing I do not have to choose based on cost, especially on cost alone.
This dilemma goes to the heart of our current conundrum of health care. We know that health care costs too much, especially in the United States. Yet I suspect that few of us, especially when a serious diagnosis is being contemplated, would want any care less than the best possible care. This is especially the case when one needs care acutely; the last thing we do when suffering from severe abdominal or chest pain is to go shopping for the best price.
As I have written before and even before that, while there may be things we can do to reduce the cost of health care without sacrificing quality, unleashing the free market, which works so well in some industries like computers and agriculture, is unlikely to be the solution to our health care cost problems. While our healthcare system can do a much better job providing information about quality and safety, I just do not see most people choosing bargain-basement prices for health care when confronted with serious illness.