Impatient

Helping make the health care system work for you

In LA, one mammogram is $60, another is $694. Why?

Why is there a big variation in the price of mammograms in Los Angeles? Is the more expensive mammogram “better” than the cheaper one?
Why is there a big variation in the price of mammograms in Los Angeles? Is the more expensive mammogram “better” than the cheaper one? /iStockphoto.com

Last week, we asked our audience a question: What did your mammogram cost?

As part of Price Check – our collaboration with KQED in San Francisco and ClearHealthCosts.com – we’re collecting this data for the next month. The goal is to bring transparency to health costs in California, and help inform the policy debate over how to hold down these costs.

If you need a little more incentive to add your information to our database, consider this:

Before we launched this project, staff from ClearHealthCosts.com surveyed California medical centers. They found that in the Los Angeles area, the self-pay (or cash) price for a mammogram could range from $60 at H. Claude Hudson Comprehensive Health Center, to $254 at Westchester Imaging Medical Center.

Meanwhile, an audience member shared her costs: She said her Kaiser Permanente insurance paid $694 for a mammogram.

Why such a large variation? And is there any difference in the quality of these mammograms? Is the more expensive mammogram "better" than the cheaper one?

I can’t answer those questions, based on the numbers alone. But if you add your own costs, we might start to see some patterns.

Speaking of patterns: Lisa Aliferis - of KQED's State of Health blog, and a collaborator on this project - wrote this week about some early Price Check findings, based on the data we've collected from San Francisco:

These early data demonstrate that there’s tremendous cost variation — especially on self-pay prices — on screening mammograms in the Bay Area. While cost variation is well known in American medicine, there aren’t a lot of places consumers can go to see prices laid out in front of them. If you’re not insured or if you want to go out-of-network for a screening mammogram, these data, though not comprehensive, at least give you a starting point on price.

Want to get involved? Here’s how to play: Grab your medical bill, visit Price Check, and tell us how much your mammogram cost.

Side note

Some of you have asked why we’re focusing on mammograms, pointing out that they should be covered as preventive care under the Affordable Care Act.

We chose mammograms because when ClearHealthCosts.com did a pilot version of this project with New York NPR affiliate WNYC  in the spring of 2013, they found that up to 30 percent of respondents paid for their mammograms.

There were several reasons why: They chose an out-of-network provider; they weren’t insured; their insurer said they hadn’t met their deductible; or it just wasn’t covered.

For more on why some women are still paying for their mammograms, check out this great blog post from ClearHealthCosts.com. Check out this fact sheet from the National Women's Law Center for more information about how women's preventative services are covered under the federal health law.

Do you have a story about the surprising costs of health procedures? Tell us about them in the comments section below, or e-mail us at Impatient@scpr.org. Your experience could inform future reporting.

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