David Kestenbaum and I have a story on All Things Considered tomorrow about MRI prices. Specifically why does it cost $900 for a shoulder MRI at one hospital when you can get the same MRI down the street for half the price? (If you listened to last week's podcast, you may already know the answer.)
In the process of reporting the story, we came across dozens of other health care pricing mysteries. Dr. Tara Lagu from the Baystate Medical Center has been collecting hospital charges for all sorts of items. She sent us a breakdown of charges from 421 hospitals for 81mg of aspirin, a baby aspirin:
The 50th percentile (the median) of hospitals charged 65 cents for an aspirin. The 75th percentile charged $2.62 for an aspirin. The 90th percentile charged $6.50 for an aspirin.
And the 99th percentile charged $11.42 for an aspirin. One hospital out of the 421 we looked at charged $18.02 for an aspirin, but it's so high we're kind of wondering if it's a mistake!
Of course it doesn't cost the hospital $18.02 for an aspirin. It doesn't cost $900 to do a shoulder MRI either. These numbers have almost nothing to do with actual costs. The hospitals essentially make them up. They charge more for things like MRIs and aspirin so they can cover other costs like 24-hour Emergency Rooms and patients who can't afford to pay their bills. It's a strange business model, and one that makes it really hard to tell if a hospital is running an efficient shop.
Bonus: Compare prices for laparoscopic hysterectomies, kidney stone removals and other popular procedures.