Cash-paying patients in Colorado can shell out as much as $3,460 for a basic shoulder MRI – but a little shopping around can cut that cost to $450.
Many consumers will check half a dozen gas stations for a few cents difference in price, but would never think they could save thousands of dollars by checking prices for a medical test like an MRI, or Magnetic Resonance Imaging.
A Colorado Public News investigation has found the costs for an MRI vary dramatically. A survey of 18 clinics and hospitals in locations around the state found a seven-fold difference in prices for a shoulder MRI — even though medical professionals say it’s exactly the same test.
Many patients must pay cash for tests like an MRI, either because they are uninsured, or because they have high deductibles. Insurance companies pay different prices, set in negotiations.
At the Salud Clinics in suburban Denver, Dr. Virgilio Licona is frustrated by the huge gap in the price of medical procedures. Half his patients have no insurance and many must choose between medical care and buying food, he said. Some wait months to get a test like an MRI, because they must save up to pay for it.
Currently in Colorado, the only way to compare prices is to call the provider directly. Yet many are reluctant – and even refuse – to disclose their prices for services.
“If you go into a restaurant or any store, the prices are clearly marked,” said Dr. Michael Pramenko, president of the Colorado Medical Society. “In health care, we’ve sort of locked out the ability for consumers to determine costs for procedures.”
“For the uninsured person, there’s no mechanism to do this, aside from calling up each [hospital and clinic] and spend a week doing this,” Pramenko said. “Even then, the answers can be a bit muddy because no one really knows. No one person in the hospital is generally assigned to provide these types of price quotes.”
Vast price differences in survey
The Colorado Public News survey asked for the cash price of a basic MRI of a shoulder – a test used to diagnose injuries like torn rotator cuffs, arthritis, bone tumors and worn-out cartilage.
The survey found freestanding clinics in Front Range urban areas nearly always charge far less than hospitals.
Least expensive of those surveyed were Thornton Imaging Center northwest of Denver, and at Touchstone Imaging in Lakewood. Both came in at $450, which included the radiologist’s fee, which is extra at many other facilities.
Colorado Springs Imaging charges $600. Health Images of City Place in Aurora charges $625, but will discount that price to $500 if patients can pay up front.
Hospitals generally charged the highest prices for the same service. A shoulder MRI at Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs came in tops, at $3,460. Boulder Community Hospital and St. Anthony North Hospital in Westminster were just $100 less.
St. Anthony’s Central Hospital in Denver was the exception among hospitals. It refers patients to a clinic across the street, Denver NMR, Inc., which will cut its fee of $1,050 to just $525 if the patient pays in full at the time of the test.
Mary McCabe, Chief Financial Officer at Banner Health in northern Colorado, explained that hospitals like hers incur greater expenses since they are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. By contrast, most freestanding diagnostic centers are able to charge less because they have lower overhead, and are open during regular business hours, Monday through Friday.
Dana Dixon, head of patient financial services at Banner Health, said the hospital charges $2,228 for a basic shoulder MRI. The hospital will cut that price in half for people with annual household income of less than $125,000, she said.
Many of the facilities promised discounts for cash or proven hardship. Not having to deal with insurance company paperwork or collecting bills cuts their costs, and they share that savings with customers.
Some providers, including The Medical Center of Aurora, declined to disclose their prices. Others, including the Vail Valley Medical Center, did not respond to several phone calls seeking information.
Finding the best deal
Pramenko says MRI machines generally produce similar results. Added costs can come into play when facilities market themselves as having the newest, often more expensive, gadgets when older-model machines they already own work just fine.
“Right now the incentive [for some hospitals] is to have the best, highest-tech equipment, instead of competing with patients for best price,” Pramenko said. “Boy has that driven costs up.”
Price shopping for medical care doesn’t have to be this difficult.
Eleven states have databases that allow people to easily compare prices, such as this one in New Hampshire at www.nhhealthcost.org.
Colorado is due for a similar online service, under a state law passed last year.
“We have a game plan to have ours in place sometime in the next year,” said Phil Kalin, executive director of Colorado’s Center for Improving Value in Health Care, which is coordinating the effort.
Jeremy Hoover contributed to this report.