Project crowdsourcing health care costs finds partners in pubmedia

By Andrew Lapin

Lawsuits, political debate and botched website rollouts have made health care a hot beat for journalists, yet the coverage has largely overlooked an important factor: the cost to consumers.

That’s what former New York Times reporter Jeanne Pinder realized when she decided to launch a journalism start-up. “The thing about the health marketplace is, it’s really a complete mystery,” Pinder said. That mystery intrigued her: “I love problems that are hiding in plain sight,”she said.

Pinder’s start-up, Clear Health Costs, combines crowdsourced data and shoe-leather reporting to track the costs of pharmaceuticals and medical procedures in health care centers around the country. Since launching the site in 2011, Pinder has struck up partnerships with pubcasters WNYC, KQED and KPCC and secured funding from the Knight Foundation and other institutions.

Pinder

Pinder

After Pinder, a decades-long Times veteran, took a buyout from the paper in 2009, she enrolled in an entrepreneurial journalism class at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism taught by media analyst Jeff Jarvis.

While in the class, she pitched the idea for Clear Health Costs, inspired in part by Price of Weed, a site that uses crowdsourcing to track marijuana prices. At the conclusion of the program, Pinder won a $20,000 grant from the school to develop the site. A few months later, a second $20,000 grant from the Ford Foundation gave Pinder another vote of confidence. Another $14,000 followed in 2012 from the McCormick Foundation’s New Women Media Entrepreneurs Project.

Even so, Pinder felt discouraged by business interests working to conceal health care costs and by the privacy concerns limiting release of medical information. “I actually had a moment where I thought about giving all the money back,”she said.

She also faced skepticism from people who felt that, at 57, she was too old to launch an online media start-up. But she pressed ahead to refine her vision and build the site, which now lists prices for procedures ranging from pelvic ultrasounds to vasectomies and features a hospital database with information furnished by the providers themselves.

Visitors can discover which providers offer the best deals, how transparent they are about added costs and how previous patients were able to use their insurance to cover expenses. Such information is often difficult to find, due to privacy concerns, government bureaucracy and the efforts of the insurance industry.

Such data is proving eye-opening for site users. One who submitted pricing data for her six-year-old daughter’s MRI procedure wrote, “My daughter will need this MRI again next year and thanks to your organization and what I learned on NPR, I will shop around next year and maybe just pay cash.”

Another contributor in Oakland paid more than $3,000 for her MRI procedure, then discovered that “I could have had it done for half the price only blocks away. My first foray into individual insurance and it sucked.”

New levels of crowdsourcing

Clear Health Costs has been working to expand its reach through partnerships with pubcasters. Last year, it teamed up with WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show to crowdsource data regarding the price of mammograms and birth-control pills at medical providers in New York. More than 400 listeners shared data via an online survey.

In April, the Knight Foundation granted $35,000 to Clear Health Costs, San Francisco’s KQED and Los Angeles’s KPCC to expand on the WNYC project with PriceCheck, a collaborative effort to build a crowdsourcing tool for reporting on health care costs in California. The project, a winner in Knight’s Prototype Fund, launched in June, allowing users to report costs of health care procedures by building an open-entry data field rather than using a list of predetermined choices.

“We had done crowdsourcing projects before, but not on this level,” said Lisa Pickoff-White, senior interactive news producer at KQED. “We are asking a really big thing. We are asking people to go find their explanation of benefits, understand their explanation of benefits and then be willing to submit to us very personal health care data.”

PriceCheck had received 275 submissions as of Aug. 15, and respondents are growing from week to week, Pickoff-White said. The stations encourage audiences to submit data about a different procedure each month but accept submissions about all procedures at all times. PriceCheck then offers the results as a database searchable by procedure and ZIP code.

After focusing on mammograms in the first month, PriceCheck has moved on to MRIs and IUDs. “I really think this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of participation,” Pickoff-White said.

KQED also broadcasts stories based on the data, and its statewide program California Report is encouraging responses from across the state. Pinder appears on air to discuss health care costs. To cross-check the crowdsourced data, PriceCheck has surveyed health care providers on the cost of their procedures.

“I think a lot of people have had experiences [with health care costs], and they want to have an outlet to talk about them,” said Pickoff-White. “When you receive a bill that’s tens of thousands of dollars even if you have insurance, it’s like, ‘What is going on here?’”

Clear Health Costs draws 90,000 unique visitors per month; Pinder is still compiling online metrics for PriceCheck. But rather than focus on pageviews, she said, her team gauges impact by tracking social media sharing, speaking invitations, on-air appearances and interest from outside communities such as Silicon Valley start-ups.

The project has also attracted the attention of Covered California, the state’s health insurance exchange program. Pinder approved a request from the program to use PriceCheck’s cost information in its own outreach campaigns.

The Clear Health Costs founder is happy to see her work gain momentum and hopes to keep it going. The cost behind health care is “probably the biggest issue we face today as a nation,” she said.

Questions, comments, tips? lapin@current.org
Correction: An earlier version of this article misreported the number and amount of grant funding Pinter received for the project. She received a $20,000 grant from the Ford Foundation and a $14,000 grant from the McCormick Foundation’s New Women Media Entrepreneurs Project.

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