The Herald Bulletin

Morning Update

Nation & World

May 9, 2013

High hospital bills go public, but will it help?

WASHINGTON —  For the first time, the government is publicly revealing how much hospitals charge, and the differences are astounding: Some bill tens of thousands of dollars more than others for the same treatment, even within the same city.

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.

The average charges for joint replacement range from about $5,300 at an Ada, Okla., hospital to $223,000 in Monterey Park, Calif., the Department of Health and Human Services said. That doesn't include doctors' fees.

Hospitals within the same city also vary greatly. At Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, the average charge to treat a blood clot in a lung is $51,580. Down the street at NYU Hospitals Center, the charge for the same care would be $29,869.

At the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, the list price is $16,861.

That isn't necessarily what you pay.

Medicare pays hospitals on its own fee schedule that isn't based on the listed charges, Blum said. And insurance companies routinely negotiate discount rates with the hospitals.

But patients who are uninsured can be billed the full amount. And some with private insurance may find their share of the bill is inflated as a result of a hospital's higher charges, officials said.

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.

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