PELHAM, NEW YORK — Jeanne Pinder had a storied career in print journalism: she was born into a newspaper family and spent twenty-three years at The New York Times. But today Pinder is venturing into new territory by founding a start-up website that aims to bring transparency and accountability to the health care marketplace. ClearHealthCosts.com was launched in beta form by Pinder in January 2011–with a redesign in June–and is attracting around 200 visitors a day so far, offering them straightforward analysis and interactive tools to understand the complicated issue of health care costs in America.
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For example, the site’s “PriceMap” feature allows visitors to search among hundreds of different health care procedures such as coronary bypasses and cervical spine fusions, and compare prices for every nearby hospital offering the procedure. A direct comparison is startling: in New York City, for instance, the treatment of diabetes costs $1,227 at Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center, and $17,908 at Kings County Hospital Center.
To get this data, ClearHealthCosts takes advantage of new transparency within Medicare, which has released enormous amounts of information in recent years to the public through websites such as Data.Medicare.gov. “They collect it but they don’t know what to do with it,” Pinder says. And, as she points out, it’s prohibitively time-consuming and confusing to sort through the raw data. “You don’t really see [the issue] when it’s in the big spreadsheet with these rows and rows and rows. You can’t really see it unless you put it in a interface like this.”
The idea for the site began with Pinder’s own bafflement over her health care bills. Why was she charged $6,000 for anesthesia when a family member could be charged thousands of dollars less? “I think pretty much everybody has had that experience. You look at the bill and go, ‘Oh my God.’ Or look at the explanation of benefits and go, ‘What?'” says Pinder. “As journalists, we like to think that if someone presents us with a really complicated problem, you don’t turn away, you start asking questions.”
In December 2009, Pinder left her job at the Times–where she had been an editor on the foreign desk, worked on the business and metro desks, helped found the Circuits technology section, and spent two years as a human resources executive–and wound up enrolling in CUNY’s Entrepreneurial Journalism course. Directed by Jeff Jarvis and Jeremy Caplan, the semester-long course focused on developing new business models for news reporting. The program has since been expanded to deliver an “Advanced Certificate in Entrepreneurial Journalism” from the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism. Pinder says the program provided a “charged intellectual environment that’s really exciting to be at.” At the end of the semester, she pitched her idea for ClearHealthCosts to a panel of venture capitalists. Pinder won $20,000 to jumpstart the site. Since then, she’s also been granted $20,000 from the Global Digital News Frontier program, part of the International Women’s Media Foundation.
Pinder says her current business plan includes sponsorship and advertising. “But also partnerships, consulting, and analysis. I think there is a lot of opportunity here,” she says. “This is not a nonprofit.” The for-profit emphasis is one fostered at CUNY’s Entreprenurial Journalism program: “They were very focused and intent on teaching us the principles of business, revenue model, competitive analysis.” The potential for growth is also hinged upon the idea that there is a rising consciousness and need for information surrounding the health care marketplace among people. “It does kind of seem like the entire nation is resonating with this same issue,” she says.
Creating a profitable business around reporting on these issues is a daunting task, and ClearHealthCosts is still in its early stages. But, as Pinder explains, “The Buddha’s journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. And, by the way, we really should know what stuff costs. It seems obvious.”