Release of hospital prices have little practical use

The release of what thousands of hospitals charge for their most common procedures last spring has done little to provide greater price transparency, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.

JAMA reports the pricing data released by the Department of Health and Human Services in May "barely tell the story surrounding charges and payments." The article noted that the differences in charges may be because the hospital has a residency program or may treat sicker patients than another hospital in the region. And because most insurance companies negotiate rates, it does not tell patients what their out-of-pocket costs may be.

The JAMA article did note that the data may be useful for uninsured patients, although it observed many hospitals will offer discounts to them.

The general lack of price transparency among hospitals appears to extend to even the most savviest consumers, the New York Times reported. Therese Allison, daughter of Gina Kolata, one of the nation's best-known science writers, could not get a specific quote for maternity care from two local hospitals in New Jersey for the birth of her third child.

Uwe Reinhardt, perhaps the best known healthcare economist in the nation, told the NYT hospitals are not obliged to tell patients their prices. Like Allison, he had a similar experience  two years ago when he was chairing the New Jersey Commission on Hospitals.

"My wife, at my behest, tried to get a price for a normal delivery from the Princeton Medical Center," Reinhardt told the newspaper. "She pretended to be an uninsured entrepreneur earning $80,000 a year. She got nowhere. I then called to try out a colonoscopy. I got nowhere too."

To learn more:
- read the JAMA article
- check out the New York Times blog post