Looking for deals on your next trip? You may tap an online travel service such as Expedia or Kayak to find the best prices on airlines and hotels.

CHI Health has signed with an online marketplace called MDsave that operates much the same way for health care. The service allows patients to buy vouchers for medical procedures online like people do for flights and lodging.

Lab tests and imaging make up the initial list of procedures available. The health system also has added physical, speech and occupational therapy and plans to roll out additional services in the future. Bundles for bariatric surgery and maternity care, among others, should be available within the coming months. Prices are up to 60 percent off what the health system would bill insurance.

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The Expedia-like service, CHI officials say, is a solution for three groups of people: those with no insurance, those with high deductible plans and those whose insurance hasn’t authorized tests that their physicians feel they need.

Dr. Cliff Robertson, CHI Health’s chief executive, said the initiative started with discussions about what the health system could do to help people access — and afford — the care they need and to provide more transparent pricing.

Internal data indicated that a significant number of Nebraskans with insurance — up to 28 percent in the Omaha area in 2015 — had plans with high deductibles or provisions that require them to pay a sizable amount before their insurance kicks in. In some cases, deductibles may be as high as $10,000 for a family.

As a state that hadn’t yet expanded Medicaid, Robertson said, Nebraska also has a higher number of uninsured individuals than other systems within Catholic Health Initiatives. Nebraska voters approved Medicaid expansion in November.

Some patients faced with such costs are choosing to forgo or delay care that they need, said Trent Booher, CHI Health’s division vice president for payer strategy and operations. That can increase costs in the long run.

Those who use the website know what the entire procedure will cost up front, he said. The listed price includes all costs: for an MRI, for instance, the cost of the scan itself as well as a reading by a radiologist.

Patients now can call a hospital to find out what an MRI will cost, he said. They also can ask what it will cost if they pay up front. But the hospital might not know the charge for reading the MRI. Prices also can vary among insurance companies or even between different plans offered by the same insurance company.

[Read more: Insurer offering ACA plans in Nebraska says court ruling won't affect coverage in 2019]

More complex bundles, such as bariatric surgery, could involve a number of elements, such as physician consultation and psychiatric evaluation as well as a hospital fee, anesthesia charges and lab fees.

“This is just a much more advanced technology platform for us to make it easy for people to really understand,” Booher said. “And the other thing that’s great about it, you see everything. What you’re paying for covers all of the service.”

Robertson said the health system can make the services available at a lower cost through MDsave because the arrangement avoids all of the administrative functions — and costs — tied up in billing and collection.

Paul Ketchel, MDsave’s CEO, said the bundling of services is what makes the service unique, and a first in the health care system.

Similarly, Expedia and Kayak combine different components of the travel experience.

“In my opinion, our industry was way overdue for the same type of innovation you’ve seen in the travel industry and the publishing industry,” he said.

MDsave now operates in 202 hospitals across 29 states and partners with eight of the 10 largest health systems in the United States. The company began issuing vouchers in 2014.

While CHI Health is the only health system enrolled in Nebraska, many markets include competing health systems.

Neither Methodist Health System nor Nebraska Medicine offer the service. Both offer options for patients who pay cash.

CHI Health started with a soft launch of the system in mid-November. They recently began mailing information to patients without insurance. So far, the health system has sold about 40 vouchers. Booher said a couple of users have driven some distance to use them.

People can purchase vouchers on behalf of someone else — say, a friend or family member. Patients must have a doctor’s order to use them.

The service is available at facilities in the Omaha area and will be offered throughout the health system’s other locations in Nebraska and Iowa in the coming weeks.

“It’s almost like we’re going back 100 years, because 100 years ago there wasn’t any insurance,” Booher said. “People paid cash for what they were going to receive.”

Julie Anderson is a medical reporter for The World-Herald. She covers health care and health care trends and developments, including hospitals, research and treatments. Follow her on Twitter @JulieAnderson41. Phone: 402-444-1066.

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