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S.C. Medicaid agency posts hospitals' financial data

South Carolina's Medicaid agency on Monday introduced an easy-to-navigate website showing the financial data of the state's 60 hospitals that will eventually allow patients to comparison shop for healthcare.

The agency's multi-stage project is aimed at bringing transparency to healthcare costs, ultimately driving costs down, by posting data online so that it's easy to access and interpret, said Director Tony Keck.

"This is an important step in the ongoing conversation about how we deliver and pay for care in our state and across the country, and how we can purchase the most health at the least cost," he said.

The data released includes five years' worth of profitability and occupancy data of hospitals statewide, as well as what each collected from Medicaid for treating uninsured patients. People can search for hospitals by name, find them on a map or compare up to four at a time from a list. Its expected audience includes legislators and policy makers.

The project's next stages will be more useful for consumers, when they'll be able to compare what hospitals charge for the same services. This spring, the agency expects to add to the website what hospitals charge for patients insured through Medicaid, Medicare, and the state's health plan through Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina.

The website is being developed in collaboration with the South Carolina Hospital Association. The agency hopes to eventually add other insurers and healthcare providers.

The website will allow patients to shop around for non-emergency care as high-deductible plans push more of the cost of healthcare onto workers. While people aren't going to comparison shop if they're having a heart attack, Keck acknowledged, he expects they will for services ranging from deliveries to medical tests such as an MRI.

"An increasing number of people are being asked to pay more and more of their healthcare bill, but they don't have the information to do it now," Keck said. "The days of small-deductible plans probably are not going to be around much longer."

Many people choosing health plans through online insurance exchanges are choosing plans that come with the lowest monthly premiums but the highest out-of-pocket costs. The federal health overhaul is also affecting people who are insured through work. Many companies are starting to change benefits to avoid an overhaul-mandated tax on high-cost plans that takes effect in 2018. One way a company can lower the cost is to raise an employee's out-of-pocket expenses.

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