CHICAGO — Want to know how much a hip replacement will cost? Many hospitals won't be able to tell you, at least not right away — if at all. And if you shop around and find centers that can quote a price, the amounts could vary astronomically, a study found.
Routine hip replacement surgery on a healthy patient without insurance may cost as little as $11,000 — or up to nearly $126,000.
That's what researchers found after calling hospitals in every state, 122 in all, asking what a healthy 62-year-old woman would have to pay to get an artificial hip. Hospitals were told the made-up patient was the caller's grandmother, had no insurance but could afford to pay out of pocket — that's why knowing the cost information ahead of time was so important.
About 15 percent of hospitals did not provide any price estimate, even after a researcher called back as many as five times.
The researchers were able to obtain a complete price estimate including physician fees from close to half the hospitals. But in most cases, that took contacting the hospital and doctor separately.
"Our calls to hospitals were often greeted by uncertainty and confusion," the researchers wrote. "We were frequently transferred between departments, asked to leave messages that were rarely returned, and told that prices could not be estimated without an office visit."
Many hospitals "are just completely unprepared" for cost questions, said Jaime Rosenthal, a Washington University student who co-authored the report.
Most hospitals aren't intentionally hiding costs, they're just not used to patients asking. That's particularly true for patients with health insurance who "don't bother to ask because they know insurance will cover it," said co-author Dr. Peter Cram, a researcher at the University of Iowa's medical school.
But he said that's likely to change as employers increasingly force workers to share more health care costs by paying higher co-payments and deductibles, making patients more motivated to ask about costs.