It is an immutable truth of economics. Transparency is an essential ingredient for a market to function with any semblance of efficiency or effectiveness. Lack of transparency – what economists call asynchronous information – leads to rapid inflation, gross inefficiency, gaming and abuse, ignorant consumers, poor quality, rampant error rates, and misaligned resources. In other words, you get America’s $1.9 trillion health care system.

After years of behind the scenes work by top health care thought leaders, the White House and key Congressional leaders are jumping on board and calling for reforms to ensure transparency (read public reporting) of health care provider prices. While prices are only part of the information needs of patients, purchasers, and payors, nationwide transparency of medical prices is essential. Health Savings Accounts and other consumer-driven health reforms such as Medicaid Health Opportunity Accounts are largely pointless in a health care system otherwise rooted in incomplete, inaccurate, and inaccessible information.

As leaders contemplate specific measures to promote transparency of prices, they should also consider sending every Medicaid and Medicare beneficiary a quarterly report on the cost of their care. (I am not talking about Explanation of Benefits [EOB] notices. EOBs don’t give a picture of their overall costs or utilization and offer no comparative, trend, or historical information.)

Using simple, colorful charts and tables and an emphasis on decision relevant information, a well-designed report would show them what care they received, what providers charged, what public programs paid, how much they paid in cost sharing, and how their medical costs compare to their peers (age group, sex, health status, and geography).

For Medicare beneficiaries, the reports could help bust a core myth of Medicare financing by showing what Medicare has paid for their care compared to what as an individual they paid in Medicare taxes and cost-sharing to date. In Medicaid, the reports would be invaluable to state efforts to move toward consumer-directed models where chronically ill or disabled patients and their families take active control of their medical lives. It would also help low-income families better understand the health care system. For dual eligibles – the 6.3 million Americans with annual health costs of a quarter trillion dollars – these personalized reports would be truly eye opening for patients and their families.

Over time, the reports could help Medicaid and Medicare beneficiaries see how their providers, health plans, and drug plans compare on measures of quality, errors, and cost effectiveness. And they could include simple health reminders.

Of course, not every benie would read the reports much less change their behavior based on the information. But the vary act of creating the reports would require Medicare and Medicaid to modernize information systems, turn transaction data into genuine decision-relevant information, and begin thinking of program beneficiaries as consumers in need of more than monstrously dull doorstops masquerading as handbooks.

Americans, including Medicaid and Medicare beneficiaries, are not stupid. But when it comes to health care costs, they are too often ignorant or oblivious. That must stop. Yes, there is a learning curve and some people prefer the bliss of ignorance to the dilemmas of judgment. Nonetheless, as consumers, as Americans, as human beings we are entitled to the information we need to make decisions. Keeping Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries and their families in the dark is as costly as it is insulting.