Want to know how much one hospital charges as compared to another?

As hospital costs have soared - far faster than the rate of inflation - hospitals ought to provide health-care cost information to the public. Otherwise, it's hard for patients to do much, if any, comparison shopping - and hard for them to help curb high hospital costs with such shopping.Certainly the public should be entitled to details explaining why care is so expensive and why there seems to be no limit to rising hospital costs.

Most hospitals agree that providing medical cost information is a good thing. However, the compilation of such data on a voluntary basis by hospitals has proved to be slow and incomplete.

Under the circumstances, it may be time to legislate a cost-reporting system instead of leaving it up to a voluntary effort by the Utah Hospital Association and its members.

Legislation was prepared last year by the Utah Health Cost Management Foundation to require such reporting. The foundation, made up of employers who pay medical bills for their workers, agreed to wait a year while the Hospital Association put out its own guide.

The UHA published a Guide to 1988 Hospital Charges in February. It is available to the public for $10. Unfortunately, several major hospitals along the Wasatch Front are not part of the guide. The information in the publication is difficult to interpret as well.

Hospitals not involved in the guide are not necessarily against having cost information published. Several of them say they will participate once questions and concerns are resolved.

Certainly it's difficult to compare the cost of certain hospital procedures because the patients and their medical problems may vary so widely. That is the same argument voiced against standardizing Medicare fees for certain treatments. But those issues can and should be resolved.

Quinn G. McKay, director of the foundation, says the legislation backed by his group would establish a Utah Health Care Data Council with the authority to gather, analyze and publish health-care cost information.

Thirty-three other states have such a mandated cost-reporting system. It is time for Utah to become the 34th.