By Sandra G. Boodman
Fri, Aug 1 2014
Francisco Velazco couldn't wait any longer. For several years, the 35-year-old Seattle handyman had searched for an orthopedic surgeon who would reconstruct the torn ligament in his knee for a price he could afford.
Out of work because of the pain and unable to scrape together $15,000 – the cheapest option he could find in Seattle – Velazco turned to an unconventional and controversial option: an online medical auction site called Medibid, which largely operates outside the confines of traditional health insurance. The four-year-old online service links patients seeking non-emergency care with doctors and facilities that offer it, much the way Priceline unites travelers and hotels. Vetting doctors is left to prospective patients: Medibid does not verify credentials but requires doctors to submit their medical license number for patients to check.
Velazco paid $25 to post his request for knee surgery. A few days later, he had bids for the outpatient procedure from surgeons in New York, California and Virginia, including details about their expertise. After accepting the lowest bid -- $7,500, a fee that covered anesthesia and related costs -- he learned that his surgeon would be William T. Grant, a Charlottesville orthopedist.
A few weeks later, after several online discussions with Grant, Velazco arrived in Charlottesville, where he had rented a $50-a-night room and would spend two weeks recuperating. On Dec. 4, 2013, he underwent knee surgery, performed in an outpatient surgery center that Grant co-owns.
"I'm back working four days per week and climbing ladders," Velazco said recently. "I'm doing great."
To Medibid founder Ralph Weber, a benefits consultant who said he left his native Canada for the United States in 2005 to escape "socialized health care," using the Internet to arrange non-emergency medical care is long overdue. Americans, he says, are increasingly going online to book travel and even find a mate. Medibid enables them to strip away the opacity that surrounds health-care pricing, Weber maintains, where charges vary wildly even in the same market and can be nearly impossible for consumers to obtain.
"We introduce transparency and also competition," said Weber, whose company is based in Murfreesboro, Tenn. "We are a disruptive innovation, a free-market alternative to Obamacare." Weber said that about 120,000 consumers -- Medibid calls them "seekers" -- have used the service. Many are uninsured, holders of high-deductible plans or enrollees in faith-based plans, which have grown as a conservative alternative to the Affordable Care Act. Seekers are charged $25 for each request or about $60 for an unlimited number of requests per year.
Roughly 6,000 doctors or surgery centers and a handful of hospitals, most seeking patients from abroad, have registered as "bidders"; physicians pay a fee ranging from $50 to bid on one request to $250 to bid on many. Once a bid is accepted, Medibid bows out, and patients work out arrangements with the doctor. Many bids are a package deal, covering the facility fee, the surgeon's charge and anesthesia services. Patients pay the bidder in full, upfront and in cash or by credit card.