Healthcare Pricing a Struggle for Consumers

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Californians are still struggling to get straight answers about the cost of common medical procedures despite state efforts aimed at lifting the veil on medical pricing.

As consumers shoulder a larger share of their healthcare costs, the ability to comparison shop is key to keeping that care affordable. Medical costs borne by U.S. employees have more than doubled since 2002 to more than $8,000 a year, while the median household income has dropped 4%.

Under a state law that took effect in 2006, hospitals must publish their average charges for the most common procedures on a state website. But relatively few take the extra step of listing prices on their own websites, where people are more likely to be looking for pricing information, according to healthcare experts.

David Dranitzke, 40, of San Francisco, recalled his frustration when he tried to get prices on a battery of blood tests for his 15-month-old daughter from three different hospitals and lab companies.

He gave up after spending more than 10 hours calling, waiting on hold and faxing information, all the while having to decipher arcane medical terminology and billing codes.

“It’s more difficult to get a price on blood work than remodeling your kitchen,” said Dranitzke, a visual-effects producer. “At some point you just throw in the towel.”

Dranitzke, who was unaware of the state website, ended up paying more than $700 out of pocket under his insurance plan for his daughter’s tests.

To see what consumers were up against, The Times contacted 10 California hospitals and asked for the cost of a routine gallbladder surgery for someone with a high-deductible insurance policy.

Seven of the hospitals offered at least partial estimates, but the quoted prices ranged widely — from $1,200 an hour for the operating room to a $8,687 facility fee. None included the cost of the doctors, although California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco did say that the total cost for hospital services, including a room, drugs and other supplies, could be $37,217.

One hospital, Desert Regional Medical Center, didn’t return calls. Contacted later, spokesman Richard Ramhoff apologized and said Desert Regional “strives to make sure everyone with a question about rates gets an answer.” Another hospital said it would take 10 business days to get an estimate, and another required detailed insurance information before discussing prices.

“This really highlights how impossible it is for consumers right now with high-deductible plans to effectively shop for care,” said Ateev Mehrotra, a policy analyst for Santa Monica-based Rand Corp. and an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

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