An online marketplace where doctors can bid for medical procedures ranging from tummy tucks to hip replacements is experiencing big growth as Americans worry about rising health care costs.
The site, MediBid, was launched in 2010 by Ralph Weber, who likens it to a Priceline.com for medical care. Users receive multiple bids from doctors, and typically pay up to 80% less than the uninsured rate and 50% less than the insurance-discounted price for procedures.
But patients be warned: Even though doctors include their credentials, you'll still need to do your own research.
Here's how it works: Doctors pay a fee ranging from $50 to $250 per year (depending on their level of activity), submit their medical license information to MediBid and create a profile with their certifications, experience and expertise.
Patients, meanwhile, type in the procedure they want, and can even attach images that would help a doctor determine pricing. Each submission costs $25 or they can opt for a year-long subscription with unlimited requests that costs $4.95 a month.
Then the bidding begins: Doctors submit the lowest price they're willing to accept, the services that will be included for that price and their terms and conditions.
As the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, made more headlines and medical costs continued to rise, traffic and requests to the site increased more than 20-fold during the last quarter of 2013 compared to the same quarter in 2012.
Doctors have put in nearly 10,000 bids and patients have signed up for more than 2,000 procedures so far. The majority are orthopedic surgeries like hip and knee replacements, but there have also been many cosmetic surgeries and alternative treatments.
For the doctor, the incentive is to cut out the administrative costs associated with taking insurance, instead allowing them to deal directly with patients who pay cash.
The patient gets pricing transparency, making it easier to determine how much they are going to owe for a certain procedure ahead of time and to compare prices among doctors.
But there are drawbacks: Since doctors participate voluntarily, consumers won't always have a full range of choices and may not pick the most experienced doctor, said Matthew DeCamp, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.
"Unless transparency and quality are linked, a user is not in a position to fully evaluate their options," said DeCamp.
And while MediBid requires doctors to provide accurate information about their qualifications and experience, there's always the risk that someone will misrepresent themselves, says Robin Gelburd, president of nonprofit FAIR Health.
To vet doctors, MediBid ensures they are licensed, in good standing and not under probation, but it doesn't check in with state medical boards for complaints or make sure they are board-certified in their specialty. It also doesn't have a doctor rating system, so consumers need to do their own research -- which they can do by looking up reviews and ratings at websites like HealthGrades or ZocDoc.
MediBid said it simply wants to give consumers more affordable options. And even though the majority of its users have been uninsured, Weber says he isn't threatened by the implementation of Obamacare.
While Obamacare aims to provide insurance coverage for everyone and lower insurance costs for millions of Americans, some will still end up paying higher premiums and others plan to pay penalties to opt out of coverage, which could make MediBid a cheaper alternative, he said. Prices on MediBid can also cost less than an insurance-discounted rate, and procedures that aren't typically covered by insurance, like stem cell therapy, can also be found on the site.
Perry Hunt, a 50-year-old from California, had been quoted more than $70,000 for a hip replacement from his local doctor, after his insurance company refused to cover it. Frustrated, he dropped his insurance plan and searched for "cash surgeries" online, where he found MediBid. He accepted a bid from a doctor for $21,000 after poring through reviews of the surgeon online. The surgery ended up being a huge success, and he said he was fully recovered after three weeks.
Weber cautions that MediBid isn't meant to be a replacement for insurance. While it's a good alternative for planned procedures, you don't have time to request bids during an emergency like a heart attack.
And while consumers using sites like MediBid need to do their own research and be cautious about the information they receive from doctors, Gelburd says it's exciting to see that websites are trying to tackle the issue of health care affordability.
"[MediBid] is evidence of this growing national conversation on cost transparency, which is healthy and is needed and will ultimately benefit the consumer," said Gelburd. "But there's a lot of experimentation that needs to take place before the edges are rounded out ... so consumers should approach these sites with healthy curiosity, but also with a healthy amount of vigilance."