Blue Cross Blue Shield made headlines a few weeks ago when they released their reimbursement rates for a variety of procedures at facilities across the state.  In the past, insurance companies have been really secretive about those rates, but BCBS has decided to make them public.

“Our goal is that those on the lower end — providing good health care at an affordable price — will be proud of that,” said Blue Cross spokeswoman Michelle Douglas. “And the providers who are at the higher end will realize they are at the higher end and get more in line.”

One high-priced North Carolina provider has already contacted Blue Cross to request a reduction in its insurance payments, Douglas said, declining to provide more details.

“I don’t think we’re surprised that one of the results is that providers are interested in making sure they’re competitive,” Douglas said. “We’re in the business of trying to keep health care costs as low as we can.”

It’s often argued that the market mechanisms that work for groceries and clothes and cars can’t work in medicine, but it seems like that idea is being challenged.  The database may encourage providers to price more competitively, which should drive costs down — just like free markets do everywhere else.  The information may also be more immediately beneficial to patients.

Patients and providers are already using the Blue Cross pricing tool to make medical decisions. The site has had 8,000 unique visitors and nearly 18,000 price searches since it was released three weeks ago, Douglas said.

Leslie Goldfarb, a Blue Cross customer in Charlotte, recently used the cost tool to save $1,500 on planned arthroscopic knee surgery at a doctor’s office. Because she has a high-deductible plan, the cost of the procedure will come out of her pocket.

“You don’t have to legislate medical costs to come down,” Goldfarb said. “All you have to do is make the information available.”

Well done, BCBS.  It’s a good first step.