Mobile app helps consumers estimate health care costs

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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -

One of the most frustrating parts of health care is going to a doctor or hospital and having no idea how much it will cost.

But now one health insurance company is working to give you the power to shop for the best price, before you go in.

Mark Olson with United Healthcare showed us how the Health 4 me app and web portal can help patients estimate costs, before they go into the doctor,

“So, let's type in MRI, and you can see here a lot of MRIs pop up,” says Olson.

The app is letting UHC members do something most of us have never been able to do: go in and shop for the best price for a medical procedure before paying.

“You can see that will range in cost anywhere from $914 up to $2,461, with the average cost being $1,188,” he says, as information pops up on the screen.

It is something Olson says customers have been asking for. “I think the biggest thing we are really going for is the empowerment factor," he says.

For many years, the cost of health benefits has been relatively cheap, compared to the actual costs of health care, says economist Marjorie Baldwin with ASU's WP Carey School of Business.

That is thanks, in large part, to employer-based plans and favorable tax laws, she says. “And I think what became really insidious is we got into this culture where you go into the physician and you don't pay anything. You just walk in and walk out and somebody else pays," she says.

But, as the cost for service has increased, we have all been asked to pay higher premiums and deductibles. It's a natural economic reaction, says Baldwin. “And the best way to cut back on that and have consumers pay attention, is for them to have some skin in the game," she says.

But to make smart choices, you need to know your options. And that's why Olson says UHC has made finding prices and quality ratings available with the website and app. “Think of it like amazon.com for health care services,” he says.

You can actually go in, enter a procedure, and find specific prices from specific providers, and even figure in your benefits and deductible.

Olson it saved him hundreds of dollars for a recent MRI. “So in my scenario, like, I said $1500 was what my deductible was, and I kept my cost down to $500.”

For some procedures, the cost difference can be in the thousands of dollars. And with high deductible plans, that's money in your pocket.

And with the mobile app you can always have your ID card ready, chat with a nurse, pay bills or check benefits. "It gives you the ability to look at your benefits and find out how much of your deductible you have met year-to-date."

Olson believes more information will make for healthier customers and a healthier system for everyone. “We want our members to make sure they feel like they are making the right decisions for themselves and this gives them that ability," he says.

Now, that app and website service are available only to UHC members, but other insurers do have similar programs. Professor Baldwin believes eventually the costs for nearly all non-emergency procedures will be widely available online, as consumers take a more active role in managing their care. The Health 4 Me app is available on itunes and google play.