Now a new study in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine pins down this shopping problem for one particular procedure: elective hip surgery called total hip arthroplasty, or THA.
The researchers called hospitals around the country — and called and called and called, up to five times each — in search of the institution's lowest price for a 62-year-old grandmother who lacked health insurance but could pay out of pocket. From the paper's abstract:
Results Nine top-ranked hospitals (45%) and 10 non–top-ranked hospitals (10%) were able to provide a complete bundled price (P < .001). We were able to obtain a complete price estimate from an additional 3 top-ranked hospitals (15%) and 54 non–top-ranked hospitals (53%) (P = .002) by contacting the hospital and physician separately. The range of complete prices was wide for both top-ranked ($12 500-$105 000) and non–top-ranked hospitals ($11 100-$125 798).
Conclusions and Relevance We found it difficult to obtain price information for THA and observed wide variation in the prices that were quoted. Many health care providers cannot provide reasonable price estimates. Patients seeking elective THA may find considerable price savings through comparison shopping.
Oh, except, wait a minute, you can't comparison shop very well when more than half of hospitals can't give you their prices.
The latest health reform law in Massachusetts, passed last year, is supposed to address this problem and require greater price transparency from hospitals. Will it? Meanwhile, my friend Jeanne Pinder's ClearHealthCosts.com uses crowdsourcing to help consumers help each other gather cost data. She blogs about the new study:
This is one of our favorite topics. If you haven’t recently, go to our PriceMap interactive page and play around with the search; for a range of procedures, in cities all over the United States, we show you what the government is paying via Medicare, the program for the elderly and disabled. You’ll be shocked at the range.
This program aired on February 12, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.