Impatient

Helping make the health care system work for you

Next up for #PriceCheck: Back MRI's

The PriceCheck project is collecting the costs of all kinds of back MRI’s: lower back, upper back, with contrast, and without contrast.
The PriceCheck project is collecting the costs of all kinds of back MRI’s: lower back, upper back, with contrast, and without contrast. Paula Steele/Flickr Creative Commons

In June, we launched PriceCheck, in collaboration with KQED and ClearHealthCosts.com.

In the first month of the project, we crowd-sourced the cost of mammograms. We asked our audience members to grab their medical bill or Explanation of Benefits, visit PriceCheck, and enter three bits of information: The total price charged, how much their insurance company paid, and how much they paid.

Mammograms: $60 or $649?

Our community provided us with valuable information. One of our contributors – Annie Brown, of Toluca Lake – told us her insurance company, Anthem Blue Cross, paid $649 for her mammogram at Glendale Adventist Medical Center.

That compares with $60 for a mammogram at the H. Claude Hudson Comprehensive Health Center. (That’s a self-pay price, and the lowest one in our database.)

Brown was shocked by the variation in prices. It was Brown’s first mammogram and, she said, “I’m sure every woman who’s had a mammogram had the exact same experience as I did. It was a friendly technician, but I don’t think that’s worth maybe $600 extra dollars.”

In an interview, Brown wondered why there’s such a wide variation in prices. Isn’t a mammogram more or less the same procedure, no matter where you go?

“I don’t think someone in Beverly Hills should pay something wildly different from someone in downtown, and I don’t think the service should be wildly different, either,” she said. “I think there has to be some sort of ball park figure.”

We'll be pursuing answers about the wide variation in mammogram prices in the coming days, so stay tuned for more on that subject.

Back MRI’s: $300 or $600?

Next up, we’re looking at MRI’s. We're particularly interested in back MRI's - because back pain is such a common problem - but we'll welcome all kinds of MRI prices.

If you're submitting back MRI prices, keep in mind that there are several types: lower back, upper back, with contrast, and without contrast. (Without contrast is more common; MRI's are done with contrast to make things inside the body more visible.)

Thanks to our partner ClearHealthCosts.com, we already have a database of self-pay prices for a variety of back MRI procedures. You can visit Price Check to see the wide variation that already exists. That price gulf could expand, as you add your own billing information.

As always, as a Price Check contributor, you will remain anonymous, with your privacy fully protected. If you’re interested in sharing the story of your MRI, or its cost, be sure to include your e-mail address, or contact us directly, Impatient@scpr.org.

Why does it matter?

I posed that question to Price Check-er Annie Brown. She responded with a question:

“I’m wondering, who’s actually paying?” she asked.

“If the bill is $650, and I don’t pay, and my insurance company does pay, how are they passing those costs back consumers, or back to my employer, who’s paying my insurance?” she said.

“So I think, in some ways, regardless of who pays the bill at the moment, there’s a larger costs for society that somebody has to pay.”

Do you have questions or comments about Price Check? Let us know in the comments section below, or e-mail us at Impatient@scpr.org.

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