Comparing prices: Hospitals must now list prices for procedures

HOUSTON – At the Exquisite Barber Shop and Beauty Bar in Humble, Christopher Hawkins and Mike Moffett cut hair for a living.

But what they’d really like to cut are their health care costs.

“Hospital prices are ridiculously high,” Hawkins said.

Chris and his wife have four kids, including 9-year-old Christian, who has autism and requires lots of hospital time, mostly for different kinds of important testing.

“I never know what I am going to pay, no sir, not at all. Just let me know, if I can’t afford it, I just have to go someplace else,” Hawkins said.

Moffett shares the same frustration. Both he and his wife Andrea are diabetic, spend a ton on hospital visits and wonder why in the world they can’t just price shop when it comes to hospitals.

“You go to a supermarket, buy yourself some ham, some bacon, the price-point is listed right there. So I can’t understand why hospitals, with all their money, would not list that price,” Mike Moffett said.

Now that's changing.

As of Jan. 1, a federal mandate went into effect requiring all of this nation's more than 3,300 hospitals to list the prices they charge online for everything: drugs, procedures, surgeries, even medical supplies.

The reason? So everyday folks can actually price shop for hospital care as they do for everything else.

“This is probably seen by the government as a first step. It’s not a great first step as I see it for consumers,” said Vivian Ho, a health economist at Rice University’s Baker Institute.

Channel 2 Investigates spoke with two medical pricing experts with more than a combined 60 years in the world of medical care pricing.

We sat down with Shawn Fry, president of Prevalent Health, which has analyzed pricing for more than 100 hospital systems, and with Ho.

And what we found were prices for procedures and services written in such a complex fashion that the average consumer could never understand what they mean or what they are talking about.

“I have a hard time understanding what any of these things are,” Ho said.

As for Fry, we spent well over an hour looking at seven different hospital websites at major hospitals in Houston for the price of a simple colonoscopy and we were only able to find it and actually understand it, at one hospital system, Memorial Hermann, where the procedure was described in simple, user-friendly terms that the average consumer could actually use.

The problem is, even when you find the price of a procedure that you can understand, the price will vary depending on the type of health insurance you have, on the amount your insurance company has negotiated down from that list price, on your deductible and on your co-pay.

A better idea, Fry says, is to go to a hospital cost comparison web site.

There are several, including or, where they list approximate costs for various procedures in your area, in terms, you can actually understand without being a doctor or hospital administrator.

Fry and Ho also said you should call your health insurance provider, who may be the very best source at telling you what your cost responsibility will be.

Finally, Fry says you should call the hospital where you are planning to have your procedure and ask one critical question.

“The key thing to ask, is to ask is this a global price? What is included in the global fees for this particular service?” Fry said.

While both of our hospital price experts say the bulk of these hospital price lists, sometimes referred to as chargemasters, are difficult to find and difficult to use, they say if you can actually find the price for the particular procedure you need, it will at least give you a ballpark idea of which hospitals tend to be cheaper and which are more expensive.

Below, we have links to those two hospital-care-comparison websites:

About the Author:

Emmy-winning investigative reporter, insanely competitive tennis player, skier, weightlifter, crazy rock & roll drummer (John Bonham is my hero). Husband to Veronica and loving cat father to Bella and Meemo.