New study says prices for MRIs vary widely--if you can actually obtain them

Prices for common medical procedures vary widely and hospitals are not readily prepared to give price information, according to a new report by the Boston-based Pioneer Institute of six major cities in the United States.

Prices varied widely for an MRI of the left knee without contrast--about as basic a procedure as possible, according to the survey of 54 hospitals. For example, Huntington Hospital near Los Angeles charged $400, the lowest price among all the hospitals. Keck Hospital at USC, less than a dozen miles away, charged $2,850.

The same scan was $428 at Meadowlands Hospital Medical Center in New Jersey and $4,544 at nearby Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, the most expensive price in the study. Plaza Medical Center in Dallas charged $508, while nearby Methodist Dallas Medical Center charged $3,858.

"In many cases, it took long waits on hold, multiple calls, several internal transfers, call-backs, dropped calls and lots of persistence and diligence on the part of our researchers to obtain price information. Our callers were frequently required to provide medical billing codes about which an ordinary consumer would have no knowledge and further, our staff was often told to call a separate organization altogether to obtain a complete estimate," the report said. "Overall, we found that an average consumer seeking price information for a common procedure faced a difficult and frustrating task."

Moreover, the report noted in another section that "the prices obtained were often broad estimates without any explanation to account for the wide variations."

The study is the latest showing that prices vary widely among hospitals for the same procedure. One regarding the price for joint replacement surgery in Colorado was released last week. And Pioneer issued a report last year saying that few Massachusetts hospitals were following a state law mandating price transparency.

"With the rise of high-deductible health plans, the wide variations in price, and the fact that in the areas surveyed there are 15 million uninsured people, it's more important than ever for consumers to have access to accurate price information," said Pioneer Institute Senior Fellow Barbara Anthony, who wrote the report, in a statement. "We must create a culture of consumer-friendly price transparency in healthcare."

Meanwhile, a Pittsburgh-area hospital is going in the opposite direction. St. Clair Hospital is offering an online price calculator that provides out-of-pocket cost estimates on 105 different procedures for insured patients, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has reported. The tool does not include what specialty physicians might charge, but the hospital expects to add it soon. 

To learn more:
- read the Pioneer Institute report (.pdf)
- check out the Pioneer Institute statement 
- here's the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article

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