Women Entrepreneurs in Digital News – Jeanne Pinder

Bringing transparency to the health-care marketplace

The mysterious health care marketplace – the most opaque, least understood sector of society – will finally be closely examined by a new website.

Enter former New York Times reporter Jeanne Pinder, who is launching a website called ClearHealthCosts.com with support from the IWMF.

Pinter studied the health care marketplace, investigating the price differences. She discovered to her surprise that the cost of anesthesia for a half-hour-long routine procedure in Manhattan could be $2,000 or it could be $6,000 – depending on where a consumer went. A colonoscopy might cost $800 – or $5,544.

For health care professionals, insurance companies and drug manufacturers comparative price information is readily accessible. But most consumers, Pinder realized, are operating in the dark.

The information is out there she says. Many health care pricing mechanisms are based on vast government databases published by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“These are huge databases, somewhat bewildering,” she explains. “If people went to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services home page looking for information, most would retire in disarray.”

Pinder will soon launch an interactive web site – clearhealthcosts.com – which she believes will penetrate this foggy medical bazaar by providing clearly defined pricing data to consumers for the first time. Users will also be able to share their own information and experiences with each other.

The site has four important components:

• Sourcing and curating: Existing public and private data is uploaded to the web.

• Crowdsourcing: By using simple survey tools, the site will ask consumers to contribute information anonymously to a database that will be free and accessible to users. A site for common information may be of particular value to people who share the same problem, such as infertility or asthma.

• Reporting: Pinder and her associates do the leg work – calling providers and requesting their self-pay or cash prices. Pinder also plans to write a “newsy blog” describing her research and findings.

• Providing a public forum for discussion: Users will be encouraged to give and receive information in a narrative format.

A 23-year veteran of the New York Times, Pinder decided it was time to “re-invent herself” and pursue something new. She volunteered for a buyout from the newspaper and turned her attention to the technical world of the web – an entirely new beat in her career. Discussions with friends, colleagues and advisors reinforced her conviction that a web site devoted to health care costs for consumers could be huge. It’s a subject that everyone is concerned about. With the increasing sophistication of Web 2.0 technology, the time seemed right for an interactive site that could serve as both information source and public forum for consumers.

For the past several months, Pinder has been researching the best places for “real people to find real information.” Among her discoveries are a select number of excellent databases published by some states: Vermont, Utah, Minnesota and Tennessee make available information that is useful and important to their citizens. Those are the exceptions, however. A group of students from the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate School of Journalism are working with her on the data collection and reporting tasks.

Pinder envisions clearhealthcosts.com growing into a nationwide entity, but the site has its roots in Manhattan, where all the research is currently taking place. She and her CUNY assistants have focused on a short list of common surgeries and procedures, such as mammograms, ultrasounds of the pelvis and abdomen, echocardiograms, cardiovascular stress tests, and MRIs of the lower back and cervical spine.

An advisor suggested that she also undertake price comparisons of discretionary procedures such as Botox treatments, Lasik surgery, even teeth whitening. While most of the costs involved will not be reimbursed by an insurance company, Pinder learned that an insurance plan might cover the initial Botox consultation in a dermatologist’s office and certain parts of a Lasik procedure.

Individual insurance plans vary widely across the country but most Americans do not have access to gold-plated coverage. At some point, they can expect to pay a portion of their health care costs by themselves. A web site that can provide accurate pricing information may be increasingly important in today’s volatile landscape of out-of-pocket costs, high deductibles, co-pays and payment denials. While the site will be free for all users, Pinder sees a large community of potential advertising clients that would be attracted to the site and would want to speak to the consumers.

The $20,000 IWMF grant will help Pinder continue to build and manage the database and address the technical challenges of creating an interactive web site. She is working with a web developer and has “begun conversations” with other technical providers who can help the site grow and flourish.

“I am deeply grateful to the IWMF, the Ford Foundation, CUNY and all the individuals at those institutions who believe so strongly in this idea,” says Pinder. “It gives me great strength and clarity of purpose to feel that there are so many people who really want this to go forward. We all understand that the cost of health care is one of the biggest problems facing our country today.”

Pinder has been consulting and studying at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in New York with Jeff Jarvis (“What Would Google Do?”) and Jeremy Caplan (director, Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism), since she volunteered for a buyout from The New York Times in late 2009 after 23 years there. At The Times, she was an editor and reporter on the metro, business and foreign desks, a founding editor of the Circuits technology section and a human resources executive developing and implementing a policy on nontraditional work arrangements. She also worked at The Des Moines Register and The Grinnell (Ia.) Herald-Register. She speaks fluent Russian and lives just outside of New York City with her 16-year-old twin daughters.

Follow ClearHealthCosts.com on Twitter: @chcosts.

April 26, 2011

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Jeanne Pinder