High hospital bills go public, but will it help?

7NEWS checks metro Denver prices

DENVER - For the first time, the government is releasing prices charged by hospitals for common procedures  covered by Medicare.  The prices can vary dramatically because of geography and differences in fee structures and the regiments of care.

7NEWS went through government records to see what Colorado hospitals charge for common procedures.   We looked at hospitals in Denver and across the state.

When it comes to treatment of bronchitis and asthma, we found some significant price swings.  At the top of the list in price: Littleton Adventist- with average charges of more than $35,000.

At the bottom:  Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins,  at more than $14,000.

If you need to get a major joint replaced - the price differences are also stark.

At the top of the list: Skyridge Medical Center in Lone Tree, with average of more than $84,000.

Yet at Arkansas Regional Medical Center in La Junta, the fee was more than half the price, at nearly $31,000.

If you need the pacemaker, there are some price differences as well.

Parkview Medical Center in Pueblo  checked in the highest in at more than $109,000. Yet,  at Montrose Medical Center in Grand Junction, it was about a third of the price at nearly $35,000.

 

With such differences in price, 7NEWS wanted to know if it’s a reflection of the quality of care.  An official with the Colorado Hospital Association told 7NEWS the data can be misleading to consumers.   The organization stresses these prices are averages and not anything people with insurance would pay.  In addition, so much of this depends on geography and the fact that every patient is different.

Why does a joint replacement cost 40 times as much at one hospital as at another across the country? It's a mystery, federal health officials say.

"It doesn't make sense," Jonathan Blum, Medicare deputy administrator, said Wednesday. The higher charges don't reflect better care, he said.

And the amounts are too huge to be explained by obvious differences among hospitals, such as a more expensive regional economy, older or sicker patients, or the extra costs of running a teaching hospital, he said.

Consumer advocates said making the charges public is significant, even if most patients don't pay those rates.

"I think the point is to shame hospitals," said Chapin White of the nonprofit Center for Studying Health System Change.

Dr. David Goodman, co-author of the Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care, said, "It does show how crazy the system really is, and it needs some reform."

Goodman argues that hospitals should be required to go further and post the charges that patients actually pay out-of-pocket, depending on what medical coverage they have. The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy has long found wide geographic variation in Medicare payments for the similarly ill, yet people who receive more expensive care don't necessarily receive better care. Sometimes hospitals just add tests or treatments they don't really need.

A hospital's charges are akin to a car dealership's "list price." Hospitals say they frequently give discounts to the uninsured -- $41 billion in financial aid in 2011.

But some people pay full price, or try to afford it, because they don't know they can seek a discount, White said.

You can review the prices and locations for yourself at this website: www.cms.gov

Blum said the Obama administration hopes that releasing the information, at the website www.cms.gov, will help lead to answers to the riddle of hospital pricing -- and pressure some hospitals to lower their charges.

The database also will help consumers shop around, he said.

Todd Park, an assistant to President Barack Obama on technology issues, said he envisions entrepreneurs creating apps to help consumers compare hospitals and researchers combing through the data to explain the cost differences.

"Transparent marketplaces are more competitive, and more competitive marketplaces drive down costs," Park told reporters at the White House. "And that's certainly the hope here."