Are Americans becoming savvier medical services shoppers or not?Well, it depends on how you look at it.

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A survey from HealthMine suggests that consumers want to makesmarter choices when it comes to buying medical services,but they are having a hard time keeping up with the games insurersplay with benefits packages.

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Not surprisingly, Dallas-based HealthMine, a provider of aplatform that assists in the purchase of health insurance, medicalservices, and pharmaceuticals, concludes that what consumers needare better comparison tools to guide them through the purchasingprocess.

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That said, the survey of 750 adults who have access to anemployer-sponsored wellness plan revealed that most consumers — 70percent — still don’t compare prices ofmedical services and pharmaceuticals before they purchase. Andthose that do price shop often feel bewildered when they attempt toexplore the health services jungle on their own.

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It’s not just lazy insurance shopping that’s to blame.HealthMine found that nearly seven of 10 health plan sponsors donot offer any kind of comparison tool to plan members.

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“Health plan sponsors may not be doing all they can to help,”HealthMine says, noting the dearth of comparison tools available tobuyers. “This is despite growing industry and consumer awarenessthat medical procedure costs vary widely by location andprovider.”

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The survey found that 42 percent say they feel it was “veryimportant” to have a comparison tool in their wellness program tohelp them decide what services and drugs to buy. Almost everyoneelse agrees that a comparison tool would be helpful.

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Yet a rather alarming level of ignorance of health servicesbasics surfaced in the responses. When asked why they didn’t shopbased upon price, four in 10 think all costs are borne by the plansponsor, and another 34 percent say cost wasn’t a considerationwhen selecting services or drugs. “I don’t know how,” ranks as aresponse by 15 percent, while another 10 percent say it was eithertoo hard or too time consuming to compare prices.

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But the survey results strongly indicate that consumers areaware that they can get appropriate coverage for less if they pricecompare. Nearly half of those who do price shop say they use acomparison tool: 35 percent say they use the comparison toolprovided by their wellness plan, and another 14 percent say theyuse some other online comparison tool. Another 45 percent say theyask their personal physician for help when shopping. Less than 10percent say they ask family and friends, which is probably a largestride in the right direction of better educated consumers.

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Dan Cook

Dan Cook is a journalist and communications consultant based in Portland, OR. During his journalism career he has been a reporter and editor for a variety of media companies, including American Lawyer Media, BusinessWeek, Newhouse Newspapers, Knight-Ridder, Time Inc., and Reuters. He specializes in health care and insurance related coverage for BenefitsPRO.