Asking the really tough questions in health care like, how much is an MRI?
If you listen to enough health care experts in Massachusetts these days, it sounds like “price transparency” is going to fix the problem of rising health care costs. The theory is that if patients know how much a test or procedure costs, and they are paying a good part of that cost themselves, then patients will start going to the lower priced hospitals and the higher priced hospitals will drop their charges to compete. Nice theory.
The problem is very few people know what anything costs and trying to get them to tell me is sometimes possible. Today I tried and largely failed. I’m supposed to get an MRI. It will cost me $25, no matter where I go, but I’m trying to be an “engaged” patient, so I called around to compare prices. I didn’t bother to ask who offers the “best” MRI. No one knows how to measure the quality of an MRI so there’s no way to tell who does the best job.
TIP: get the exact code for your procedure, you’ll need this when calling around.
I started at Newton Wellesley Hospital which is where the very nice secretary in my doctor’s office booked me an appointment. No one in my doctor’s office knew how much the MRI would cost. They may have to soon. Massachusetts is about to make sharing prices and quality information with patients the law. But back to Newton Wellesley where I called Radiology – they had no idea. I called patient billing. Another very nice woman said she thought her supervisor would know how much an MRI would cost. She would call me back. She didn’t. I tried three more times. Each time I got a message saying call back later.
So I tried Shields, a network of labs. I’ve heard they’re the cheapest place to get and MRI. I was not on hold at all. The woman asked me what kind of insurance I had and gave me a price based on that insurance. (She also asked really smart questions that made me wonder if I had the right MRI code, but anyway…) The price at Shields was:
70552 (w/ dye/contrast) $ 603.31
70553 (w and without dye, to get the baseline test and then one with dye) $1294.58
70551 (no dye) $615,
(The secretary in my doc’s office wasn’t sure if I needed the test with dye. How confusing can this get? And ordering a test is supposed to be simple! Trying to find the price for something like a hip replacement, where there are dozens of variables seems even more impossible.)
I figured I’d compare Shields with Mass General. It’s often the most expensive place to go for care and was just named the best hospital in the country. I tried Radiology – no idea. I called billing. A nice man said I had to call the office of “financial access.” I was on hold for 22 minutes the first time I called (I had to hang up to do some work). The second time, I tried a different extension and got a woman who seemed a bit flustered by my question, but then told me the price for one of my codes:
70552 (w/dye) $5,315.00
That was the price, she said, for someone without insurance. She couldn’t tell me what the price would be for someone who has my insurance. Your insurance company might have that, she said. I called Blue Cross, nope they can’t give me the price of an MRI at Mass General. I know they both have the info, but they aren’t giving it up.
I tried one more place – Atrius, which includes Harvard Vanguard, where my kids are patients. Their prices are in the range of or lower than Shields – which is interesting because Atrius has been one of the higher priced providers in Mass.
70552 (w dye) $670
70551 (no dye) $558
So where should I go? Darn, I forgot to ask about wait times and referrals. Back to the phone.