Mandatory Transparency: The Only Path to Effective Medical Cost Comparison

12 June, 2024

The Medical Costs Finder website, intended to assist Australians in comparing medical procedure costs, has proven to be another expensive failure, reminiscent of the doomed GroceryWatch and FuelWatch initiatives. 

Launched by the Coalition government in 2019 at an initial cost of $2.5 million, it aimed to provide patients with a tool for finding affordable care options. The government later allocated an additional $17 million in 2020 to enhance the site and encourage doctors to disclose their fees, aiming for greater transparency around out-of-pocket costs.

However, at a recent Senate Estimates hearing, it was revealed that only 20 doctors nationwide had listed their fees on the site. Independent Senator David Pocock aptly pointed out that this equated to over a million dollars per doctor, underscoring the website’s inefficacy and echoing the failure of previous attempts like GroceryWatch and FuelWatch under the Rudd Labor government.

The revelation was particularly concerning given the high out-of-pocket surgery costs faced by private patients in the ACT. Data from Private Healthcare Australia shows that ACT residents pay at least 50% more than those in other regions for common procedures such as knee replacements, cataract surgeries, prostate surgeries, shoulder reconstructions, and gallbladder surgeries. These exorbitant costs, attributed by Health Department deputy secretary Penny Shakespeare to individual surgeons’ pricing, were supposed to be mitigated by the Medical Costs Finder.

Yet, despite 640,000 visits to the website, its limited listings have left many users bitterly disappointed. Health Minister Mark Butler rightly criticized the previous government for the website’s failure to become a useful tool for consumers, stating that it lacked transparency and had been left ineffective. He has pledged to work on improving the Medical Costs Finder and enhancing cost transparency in collaboration with consumers, medical colleges, and private health providers.

While the intention behind such initiatives is commendable, their execution often falls short due to reliance on voluntary participation. This is the fundamental flaw. To ensure success, the government must mandate that doctors list their fees on the website. Consumers need the ability to compare doctors’ fees to avoid bill shock and make informed decisions about their healthcare.

Without an enforcement strategy, projects like the Medical Costs Finder become mere financial waste and stark examples of governmental disregard for taxpayer money. The millions spent on these initiatives could be far better utilized if backed by compulsory participation, ensuring that taxpayers’ investments translate into tangible benefits. It’s time for the government to enforce transparency and make these tools genuinely effective for the public they are meant to serve.

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