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Like many New Yorkers in March of 2020, Tae Young Woo found himself both laid off and looking for elusive COVID tests – but little did he know that the stressful incident would eventually lead to his new business venture creating Finestra Health, a search engine helping patients find the cost of procedures across area hospitals.
“The week that Mayor de Blasio shut down the city, I had just gotten a new job – a week later, I was laid off because the company shut down,” said Tae Young, who has a background in content production. “I was frantically searching on Glassdoor for a new job and at the same time trying to find COVID tests and how much they would cost – which was especially important, because soon I wouldn’t have health insurance coverage,” he added.
“While I was flipping back and forth between Glassdoor and Google, I had an idea –– why isn’t there something like Glassdoor, which lists employee salaries, for healthcare costs? Why isn’t there a platform where people can compare and post ‘Hey, I went to Mount Sinai, got an X-ray, and was billed $500,’ when someone else might have been billed $400? If somehow we could gather that information together, it would be a very useful tool.”
Tae Young’s idea came further into focus as in January 2021, a new hospital transparency law required healthcare facilities to provide publicly-accessible gross pricing information. “I brought in a friend of mine from high school and told him that I had this idea about a search engine for medical bills – ‘maybe we can start collecting all of these numbers that the hospitals are pushing,’” said Tae Young. “He was interested and brought in a childhood friend, and so the three of us started working on it.”
With fellow founders Frederick McNulty and Austin Hatem also based in New York, they started with city hospitals. “There are the big systems like New York Presbyterian, Mount Sinai, etcetera, but there are also quite a few smaller local hospitals,” said Tae Young. “We started digging through the price data files, which are very comprehensive but also very large and basically unreadable to the human eye. So we ended up needing to run a lot of codes and processes to filter all of the gibberish for the consumer.”
The team announced Finestra Health’s launch via the New York City subreddit, where the much-needed service was an instant hit. “People on the subreddit were sharing it with friends and relatives in other cities who then contacted us saying, ‘Hey, can you open this in Chicago? Can you open this in San Francisco?’ So we followed the lead there,” said Tae Young. “Now we have over 20 million price data points in five cities at this point, and we’re trying to expand to more cities as we speak.”
As medical transparency legislation evolves – a new transparency law went into effect on July 1 requiring health insurers to disclose their pricing and negotiation with hospitals, and the Biden administration is pushing the “No Surprises Billing Act” – Tae Young and the team continue to grow the functionality of the search engine. “There’s a progression of the amount of information that the hospitals have to disclose,” he said, adding that despite resistance from many major medical institutions, “even with the hospitals that abide by the law and disclose numbers, there’s a need for a third-party search engine to parse through everything.”
“The data that we collect from hospitals is really just the foundation,” said Tae Young. “We want to gather more of is what people actually got charged after the whole insurance process – we haven’t even started tapping into that yet,” he added. “We just started a couple weeks ago, but based on our inbound messages, people really think that something like this needs to exist and we’re getting offer from people who want to contribute as well as more requests to open in different cities.”
He hopes that the nascent search engine can make a difference in encouraging patients to seek out preventative care armed with a better sense of what is – and isn’t – fair procedure pricing. “Like most Americans, I try not to seek medical care,” said Tae Young. “In the past it was just, ‘Grab Tylenol or Advil, cross your fingers and hope for the best,” he added. “You didn’t know if an X-ray would be $500 or $50,000 – there’s a sheer fear that people have of not knowing how expensive something is going to be.”
“Being able to gather this data and show that an X-ray can be in the hundreds of dollars rather than in the thousands of dollars could really help someone who needs that preventative care,” said Tae Young. And while he hopes, of course, not to need urgent medical care, “If I need anything done, I’ll be using our website!”