A Premera spokesman says only a couple people have used the program so far, but the insurer expects use to pick up as it includes more members next year.
Some patients are deal hunting on their own. The website Medibid, which launched in 2010, connects patients who are paying out of pocket with doctors who bid to provide care. The website's founders say they've helped about 1,800 people find care.
Patients register with the site and pay either $25 per request or $4.95 a month for a year so they can post their medical needs on the site to solicit bids. Care providers, who register and pay fees of either $24.90 per month or about $250 annually, respond to patients with a bid.
Tess St. Clair, Medibid's chief operating officer, says the site helps people weigh their health care options: "The hardest thing for an American to do is ask the question how much will this cost and get an answer."
Dr. Keith Smith, with the Surgery Center of Oklahoma, bids often on Medibid requests. Smith says his physician-owned center can offer better rates than some competitors because it doesn't charge a high facility fee like many hospitals do. The center competes on price and cuts out insurers.
Smith says this approach forces it to offer good care: The center cannot hide in an insurer's network and continue to receive patients regardless of the job it does.
"If we started cutting corners and worrying about our pocketbook before doing the right thing, we're going to lose our business," he says.
Rick Matthews, a motivational speaker, saved money on his hernia surgery last year by putting it up for bid on Medibid and having the procedure at Surgery Center of Oklahoma. Matthews, 62, decided to use Medibid after he learned that the care would cost about $20,000 without insurance at a hospital close to his Milaca, Minn., home.
Matthews pays for health care through a Christian cost-sharing ministry in which members chip in to help cover medical bills. He didn't want to stick them with a big bill. A doctor on Medibid said the surgery would cost about $3,600, including removing a cyst on his knuckle.
Counting costs for the roughly 1,400-plus mile roundtrip drive, Matthews figures the cost was about $4,500 — more than 70 percent off the original estimate.