Profile: Carol

Minn. Web site creates health market

By ELIZABETH DUNBAR, Associated Press Writer
Sun Feb 10, 2008 3:05 PM ET

You can buy almost anything online these days, but try shopping the
Internet for an MRI, strep throat test or even an annual physical exam
and you’ll run into roadblocks.

A new Twin Cities company called Carol is trying to change that with
a Web site that gives consumers a "care marketplace" to search for
medical services, compare quality and price and make appointments.

Carol joins an effort to transform the U.S. health care system by
putting consumers in charge and letting the market do its work.

"We want to let consumers define value," said Tony Miller, Carol’s
founder and chief executive officer. "We don’t have care competition in
the marketplace today."

The free site, which went live in January, generates revenue from
health care providers who become "tenants" on the site. When a consumer
sets up an appointment with a clinic or doctor on Carol.com, the
provider pays the site a fee.

While limited to about 30 providers in the Twin Cities area at its
launch, the company is adding others and plans to serve a second U.S.
market sometime this year, Miller said.

Health care experts said Carol will face challenges in getting
enough doctors and health plans to participate. But they said it goes
farther than previous efforts to use the Web to enhance medical choice,
and they praised its ease of use.

Instead of going through a list of doctors or clinics, users tell
the site what they’re looking for by clicking on parts of the body.

For instance, if a consumer clicked on "entire body," then "annual
exam," and chose a routine physical for women age 40-64, the results
page would show six different options ranging from $207 to $335. After
selecting a number of options, consumers can click "compare" and see
exactly what each exam would entail. They can also read a description
of the doctor or clinic’s philosophy and link to ratings by MN
Community Measurement, a nonprofit that measures health care
performance in Minnesota.

Consumers who have insurance can type in plan information to have Carol.com estimate their out-of-pocket cost.

Miller said Carol is sensitive to consumer privacy, allowing people
to search the site without registering, and it won’t market to
individual consumers even if they do register.

"The fact that they have a basic set of providers and prices and
care packages is very impressive," said Greg Scandlen, president of the
advocacy group Consumers for Health Care Choices, which lobbies against
government regulation of the health care market.

But Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research
Group, said the site is nothing more than advertising, and he hoped it
wouldn’t catch on.

"Among physicians, there’s a belief that health care is too critical … to be left to the usual marketplace," he said.

If the site becomes more comprehensive, Carol.com would be most
useful to people with high-deductible plans, health savings accounts or
those without health insurance, said Elizabeth Boehm, an analyst with
Forrester Research who studies the health care customer’s experience.

She was skeptical of the site’s prospects because many people’s choices are limited by their HMO.

"(Price is) just not what drives people to make their health care
choices," Boehm said. "The challenge for a site like this is that while
conceptually it’s good … the reality is there are only a small group
of customers looking for that."

But Miller said consumers are starting to realize that choosing
cheap health care might come back to haunt them in the form of higher
premiums or other increased costs. And he thinks there are plenty of
people like him who might want different options for care and are
willing to pay more out-of-pocket to get what they want.

He said his idea for Carol came in part from his own experience
with a heart condition for which he was told he needed surgery. A
second professional recommended medication, which Miller, 41, said
worked.

"I had the wherewithal and some of the contacts to help me
navigate and find answers in the health care system. Most consumers
don’t have that," said Miller, a partner in the venture capital firm
Lemhi Ventures, which has invested $25 million in Carol.

Park Nicollet Clinic, one of the bigger providers in the Twin
Cities with nearly 700 doctors, was one of the first to embrace the
Carol idea. Chief executive David Wessner said the clinic was already
looking at ways to deliver value to patients and wasn’t afraid to
reveal prices.

"We just think there really is a crisis in value in health
care. One of the things that helps us address that crisis is to package
high value services and start to be willing to compete on that,"
Wessner said.

Psychiatrist Ronald Groat said Carol is important because it
makes health care "more visible and transparent to someone who’s
looking for help."

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On the Net:

http://www.carol.com

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