Good luck getting specialty provider prices in Massachusetts

Despite enacting a groundbreaking law on healthcare price transparency, it remains difficult to actually obtain prices from Massachusetts providers, according to a second study this year by the Pioneer Institute, which surveyed the offices of more than 90 specialty providers such as gastroenterologists, dermatologists, ophthalmologists and dentists.

In a study released last June, Pioneer concluded that "hospitals seem to have no systems or procedures in place to direct consumers who are looking for price information."

Dentists, who treat a large number of cash-paying patients, were the most upfront about their prices. Virtually every practice provided a price for an exam and cleaning, ranging from $57 to $245, according to the survey results. But the results were dramatically different with the medical specialists, such as dermatologists.

"A number of offices were taken aback by questions regarding the price of a routine exam and removal of a wart, and while others readily knew the price of an office visit, the price of wart removal was more difficult to obtain," the report said. "A few were unsure they had authority to give out price information."

Prices also varied widely--even within the same practice. One said the exam would range from $85 to $400; another, $100 to $400.

That was the same experience researchers found when attempting to find colonoscopy prices from gastroenterologists. Not only did office staff not initially have the information, researchers had to supplement the information by finding prices for the facility where the colonoscopy would take place and the fee for the anesthesiologist.

"We conclude that it is very difficult for an ordinary consumer to learn the price of a routine screening colonoscopy from Massachusetts providers within the two business days required by law," the report said. "Most ordinary consumers would likely give up in frustration and not succeed in obtaining this important information." 

Barbara Anthony, a senior healthcare fellow at Pioneer, told the public radio station WBUR that when it came to asking office staff for prices and other information, "sometimes people were downright rude." 

Gastroenterologist fees ranged from less than $500 to more than $2,000. Facility fees ranged from $950 to $4,000. Altogether, the price for such a procedure ranged from $1,300 to more than $10,000.

It was slightly easier to obtain prices from ophthalmology practices, although nine of the 23 contacted had no idea there was a state law in place compelling them to provide the information. Exam quotes also ranged widely from $80 to $327. And more charges could be tacked on "if something goes wrong," although no practice could provide specifics as to what that might be, according to the study.

To learn more:
- download the study 
- check out the WBUR article