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New focus on hospital pricing
11/29/2017
 
The Maryland Health Care Commission launched a website in early October designed to help consumers compare costs among hospitals.

The comparative analysis at www.wearthecost.org includes data from 2014 and 2015. For now, price comparisons are available for four procedures – hysterectomy, vaginal delivery, hip replacement and knee replacement – and will expand to include others over time.

The Baltimore Sun notes a knee replacement at Medstar Harbor Hospital will cost a patient $37,225 on average, while the same procedure at University of Maryland Shore Medical System at Easton costs $22,687. Similarly, patients will pay $20,010 on average for a hysterectomy at Johns Hopkins Hospital but only $11,691 to have it done at St. Joseph.

A spokesman for Johns Hopkins said charges are higher there because “our obstetrics and gynecology team is treating the most complex cases in the region, caring for women who often are transferred from other hospitals to Johns Hopkins for our team’s specialized care.”

The data on the consumer website is taken from claims from private insurance plans or from those who paid out of pocket. The website will be updated next year to include the state’s Medicare patients.

Jonathan Weiner, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, told the newspaper he is skeptical whether the access to prices will influence patient choice. Most people who have insurance don’t worry about the cost as long as their insurance covers it, he said. But he noted the website is comprehensive and informative at a time when hospitals are under pressure to reduce costs.

Separately, the well-known publication Vox is calling on readers nationwide to send in their hospital bills. The year-long project will focus on a charge commonly called an "emergency facility fee," which is a base fee most hospitals charge for any ED service. According to Vox, the fees generally are not publicly shared and vary widely by hospital.

Bills that listeners of a Vox podcast have submitted for review have ED facility fees that range from $533 to $3,170.

Hospitals say the fee is necessary for covering ED overhead. Ryan Stanton, an ED physician and spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians, told Vox “we have to prepare for the sickest of the sick.”

“So if you come in with a stubbed toe, I still have to be prepared and staffed for the acute heart attack or the gunshot wound, or whatever is coming in,” he said.

Hospitals have their reasons, and then there is this harsh reality: Nearly 60% of Americans don’t have enough cash to cover a $500 unexpected expense, according to a survey earlier in the year from Bankrate.

Even that dismal statistic reflects a slight improvement from 2016, when 63% of U.S. residents said they wouldn’t be able to handle such an expense.