'Priceline' of healthcare lets you bid on services

William Shatner may not be available, but patients who use a new Web site to negotiate prices with doctors might want to use Shatner's tactics as "The Negotiator" for Priceline.com.

PriceDoc.com started in Seattle in April and is set to go national in November, allowing people to name their price for medical, dental, vision and other healthcare services.

I can just see Shatner using his Captain Kirk mannerisms as he does for the travel site that lets customers name their own price for a hotel room or flight, for trying to get a better deal on cosmetic surgery or dental implants.

PriceDoc has more than 700 providers in the Seattle area and hopes to have 1,500 providers in 30 metro areas across the country when it expands in November.
Online bidding for a doctor's services is just part of what PriceDoc offers, said Patrick Bradley, chief operating officer and president of PriceDoc. It also allows people to find doctors in their area, research credentials, and find good prices, Bradley said.

"We don't want to be the Walmart of low-cost health care," he said in a telephone interview.

Customers save 10% to 30%, and sometimes much more, he said.

Some Web sites, such as North American Surgery Inc., offer pre-negotiated, reduced-rate surgery for the uninsured in hospitals, while sites such as the Healthcare Blue Book offer a guide to healthcare pricing so you know before you bid how much a tooth extraction should cost in your area.

Dr. Randal Swanlund, a dentist in Seattle, said his fee for dental implants are 35% to 50% less than his competitors through PriceDoc, although he offers the savings to all of his patients. PriceDoc helps him get a few more through the door each month.

The site appeals mostly to the underinsured or people without insurance, because with insurance customers are less likely to shop around. With more than 47 millions Americans without health insurance and 100 million without dental insurance, it's a big market.

"You're never going to go bankrupt because you don't have dental insurance," Bradley said. "It's nice to have, but you don't have to have it."

Shane Harris, 43, of Tacoma, Wash., is one of those people. He saw a TV commercial for PriceDoc and after 20 years of neglecting an abscessed tooth, he contacted Swanlund's office, which told him upfront what the prices were.

Harris said he never considered getting dental insurance because he can't afford it. He's lived below the poverty level for awhile, working as a self-employed medieval jeweler.

He paid $1,084 cash for an implant, saving 30%. Harris is also getting a crown and three more implants from Swanlund.

He didn't bid for the dental work, but was happy with the open disclosure at Swanlund's office, something he didn't find elsewhere.

"They were able to tell you how much it was," Harris said of Swanlund.

Such transparency is uncommon among doctors, and something that PriceDoc encourages, Swanlund said.

"I don't think it ever occurred to anybody to put on their Web sites what their fees are," he said. "PriceDoc has leveled the playing field," he said.

People with dental insurance don't usually shop around for dental care, he said, although they do shop around for procedures where they have to pay a lot of out-of-pocket expenses, such as orthodontics and surgery.

Some of his customers have put in bids for lower fees, which he's met so far, he said.

Paying with cash or credit card can often bring an automatic 30% discount because the doctor is happy not to have to deal with an insurance company, said PriceDoc's Bradley.

Like hotels that sell empty rooms at discounts on Priceline and elsewhere online, some PriceDoc doctors offer lower fees during less popular hours -- such as Saturday morning or 8 a.m. Monday, he said.

"They're offering some of their inventory that's available at that price," he said of the bargains.

While Bradley stresses "We're not all about price," that will probably end up the main reason why anyone would use PriceDoc. That's what the Internet is all about: saving money.

The company's marketing will start with online celebrities pushing it, and eventually Bradley said he hopes to have TV ads as well. Let's home William Shatner is available.

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Reach him at www.AaronCrowe.net
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