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Government reveals hospital costs, and differences are eye-opening

By Connie Cass and Lauren Neergaard

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, May 8 2013 7:07 p.m. MDT

FILE - This file photo provided by the National Park Service shows the inside of the deactivated Delta Nine Launch Facility near Wall, S.D., that is now open to the public. The Air Force stripped an unprecedented 17 officers of their authority to control _ and if necessary launch _ nuclear missiles after a string of unpublicized and unacceptable failings, including a potential compromise of missile launch codes. The group?s deputy commander said it is suffering ?rot? within its ranks. The tip-off to trouble was a March 2013 inspection of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., which earned the equivalent of a ?D? grade when tested on its mastery of Minuteman III missile launch operations. (AP Photo/National Park Service, File)

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — For the first time, the government is publicly revealing how much hospitals charge, and the differences are astounding: Some bill tens of thousands of dollars more than others for the same treatment, even within the same city.

Why does a joint replacement cost 40 times as much at one hospital as at another across the country? It's a mystery, federal health officials say.

"It doesn't make sense," Jonathan Blum, Medicare deputy administrator, said Wednesday. The higher charges don't reflect better care, he said.

And the amounts are too huge to be explained by obvious differences among hospitals, such as a more expensive regional economy, older or sicker patients, or the extra costs of running a teaching hospital, he said.

The average charges for joint replacement range from about $5,300 at an Ada, Okla., hospital to $223,000 in Monterey Park, Calif., the Department of Health and Human Services said. That doesn't include doctors' fees.

Hospitals within the same city also vary greatly. At Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, the average charge to treat a blood clot in a lung is $51,580. Down the street at NYU Hospitals Center, the charge for the same care would be $29,869.

At the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, the list price is $16,861.

That isn't necessarily what you pay.

Medicare pays hospitals on its own fee schedule that isn't based on the listed charges, Blum said. And insurance companies routinely negotiate discount rates with the hospitals.

But patients who are uninsured can be billed the full amount. And some with private insurance may find their share of the bill is inflated as a result of a hospital's higher charges, officials said.

Blum said the Obama administration hopes that releasing the information, at the website www.cms.gov, will help lead to answers to the riddle of hospital pricing — and pressure some hospitals to lower their charges.

The database also will help consumers shop around, he said.

The variations shouldn't be a surprise, since hospitals might violate antitrust regulations if they shared "proposed or negotiated rates" with each other, said Rich Umbdenstock, president of the American Hospital Association. Forty states do require or encourage hospitals to make some payment information publicly available, he said.

"The complex and bewildering interplay among 'charges,' 'rates,' 'bills' and 'payments' across dozens of payers, public and private, does not serve any stakeholder well, including hospitals," Umbdenstock said.

Consumer advocates said making the charges public is significant, even if most patients don't pay those rates.

"I think the point is to shame hospitals," said Chapin White of the nonprofit Center for Studying Health System Change.

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