Need a medical procedure? Why it pays to compare prices

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - With three kids and a high insurance deductible, Dana and Michael Harding know bills for a sick child can quickly add up.

"You never anticipate one of your children is going to become very ill," Michael Harding said.

But last year, their 12-year-old son contracted strep and came down with a rare auto-immune disease. Their insurance would not cover it. Expensive blood tests and trips to specialists quickly added up.

"It's horrible," Dana Harding added. "You're already dealing with the concern of your son and you have the medical bills on top of it. It's overwhelming."    

Jane Cooper is CEO of Patient Care, a health care transparency and research company. 

"Because costs have escalated so rapidly, there's more of a cost sharing with the employee through higher deductibles," Cooper said. 

Companies hire Cooper to research the price of medical procedures at different facilities in their city. She price shops to help people and companies save money.

"The impact for employees is, wow! Now this is my money that I'm spending. I do want to understand how I'm spending it," she said. 

For Call For Action, Cooper's company compared prices for different procedures around Kansas City.

A patient's out of pocket cost for a mammogram at a local hospital can be $267. But the price at an imaging center is $142 or $125 cheaper.

An ultrasound? Cooper found prices ranging from $100 to nearly $397. A thyroid can range from $1,568 to $2,500, a $931 dollar price difference for the patient. 

"Whether I go to an outpatient imaging center, an inpatient hospital or an academic medical center, costs are very different," Cooper said.   

When it comes to elective procedures, patients often go to where their doctor suggests.

"As a patient, I would be asking questions. Can I go somewhere else? Is there a way for me to go to an outpatient facility?" said Ed Moore, the CEO of Diagnostic Imaging Centers.

DIC, which does everything from mammograms to MRI's, is not tied to a hospital.

That can mean less overhead and less cost to a patient.

"When you're looking at healthcare needs … I don't see why we would not choose to educate ourselves," Moore said.

Today, the Harding's go to a "cash only" doctor who offers low prices by avoiding insurance companies. The Harding's use the family plan, $100 a month gets them unlimited office visits. It saves them money and worry.

"I don't have to worry about my insurance denying the claim or not covering it for some reason. It's covered. I already paid for it," Dana said.

Ways to price compare and save on medical costs:

1)    Ask your doctor questions. If they recommend a facility for a certain procedure, ask if there are less expensive places to go.

2)   Call your insurance provider's 800 number. Ask them to help you find cheaper options.

3)   Call facilities and ask for their best offer. Some places will drop their rates if you offer cash instead of submitting through insurance. Ask your doctor for the procedure's CPT code which can help you better compare prices.

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