Asking these questions could save you thousands of dollars on medical care

Expert says, “People are making a ton of money off of the fact that you don’t know what stuff costs in health care."

Asking these questions could save you thousands of dollars on medical care
Jamie Smith, left, an ultrasound technician at Womack Army Medical Center, performs an ultrasound on first-time mom, Jennifer Meilicke, March 4, 2016. (U.S. Army photo by Eve Meinhardt/WAMC PAO)

CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - Typically, when someone is in the market for a new car or new appliances, they shop around to find the best price.

But did you know that you can also do that with medical procedures?

Asking these questions could save you thousands of dollars on medical care

Despite the fact that prices are up for medical office visits and treatments, most of us aren’t shopping around for lower-cost care.

Here is why you should: As we investigated, we found that picking up the phone and asking a few simple questions could potentially save you thousands of dollars.

“People are making a ton of money off of the fact that you don’t (know) what stuff costs in health care," said Jeanne Pinder, the founder and CEO of ClearHealthCosts. Pinder says her company is working to bring transparency to the health care marketplace by sharing prices with the public.

“A simple blood test could be $19 one place or $522 a few blocks away," said Pinder. "You should know that.”

Pinder believes medical care prices and billing are intentionally confusing for consumers.

“Most of us believe that prices are somehow fairly uniform," said Pinder. "Most of us also believe that there is some kind of regulatory agency protecting us from scary ‘gotcha’ bills. Many of actually believe that our insurance policies give us access to the best prices. None of those things are true.”

Pinder says the key to potentially saving thousands of dollars on heath care services is to act like a reporter and start asking these questions:

How much will that cost? How much will that cost me on my insurance? What is the cash price for someone that isn’t insured? Could you please put that in writing?

“It’s not an automatically easy thing for people to ask, but once you learn how to do it and start doing it, it’s not as hard and it’s very rewarding when you save,” said Pinder.

“Sometimes you will not save money by asking the for the cash price," Pinder said. "It’s just the more information the better, and the more agency you have, the more ways you have to avoid being ripped off in health care the better off you are.”

ClearHealthCosts has come up with a list of around three dozen common ‘shoppable’ procedures; medical care they say “can more or less be compared as apples to apples.”

Those procedures include:

  • Imaging: MRI of the lower back without contrast; MRI of the lower back without and with contrast; MRI of the upper back without contrast; MRI of the upper back without and with contrast; pelvic ultrasound; abdominal ultrasound; screening or preventive mammogram.
  • Women’s health: Well-woman exam; Pap smear; sexually transmitted disease test; urinary tract infection test; IUD insertion; abortion; Depo-Provera birth control; screening or preventive mammogram.
  • Men’s health: Sexually transmitted disease test; vasectomy (traditional and non-scalpel).
  • Blood tests: Comprehensive blood count (CBC) blood test with differential; comprehensive metabolic panel (CMP); thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH); cholesterol (lipids) blood test.
  • Dental: Basic dental exam; teeth filling; teeth cleaning; teeth whitening.
  • Other: Walk-in clinic visit; basic eye exam; colonoscopy; cardio stress test; echocardiogram with Doppler; sleep study (polysomnogram; split-night sleep study; multiple sleep latency test).
  • Cosmetic or discretionary: Lasik, Botox, teeth whitening.

“We don’t expect people to be looking for the cheapest appendectomy or the cheapest cancer care, but we do think that there are a number of very common interactions with the health care system that are imminently shoppable,” said Pinder.

Our investigative team gave it a shot and shopped around for an abdominal ultrasound, researching prices at various hospitals and free-standing imaging centers throughout northeast Ohio.

Depending on where you go, you could pay anywhere from $150 to $1,500 for the same procedure. We even found that prices can vary by hundreds of dollars within the same hospital system.

We took at look at the prices published on University Hospitals' website and found an abdominal ultrasound at UH Cleveland Medical Center is $715 while the same procedure at UH Parma Medical Center is $1,040.

At Cleveland Clinic’s Main Campus, the published price for an abdominal ultrasound is $731, while the same procedure at Cleveland Clinic Akron General costs $1,153.

Even after factoring in insurance, we found the ultrasound would still cost hundreds of dollars less at the free-standing imaging centers we called, where the cash price for an abdominal ultrasound ranged from $150 to $200.

And just because the cost at the independent facilities is cheaper doesn’t necessarily mean the quality of the procedure is any different.

“Studies show and our research confirms that there’s no correlation between higher price and better quality in health care," said Pinder.

If you do shop around, Pinder also recommends asking if there are any additional charges, such as facility fees or a fee to read an MRI.

You should also double check that everything and everyone is in network, and get that in writing as well.

“You go to a hospital that’s in network, and you think everything is going to be in network, and then you get a surprise bill from either a radiologist or an emergency room doc who’s out of network," said Pinder. "It’s a constant problem.”

One thing we’ve found - pricing out medical care isn’t always easy. It can be very time consuming and frustrating.

But taking the time to shop around can really pay off.

“We saved one woman $3,786 dollars," Pinder said. “It’s like a vacation in Paris. It’s you monthly mortgage times five for many of people. And that’s not an isolated instance. We’ve heard people save $2,000. They saved $1,300, $1,200, $250, $800. We hear a lot from people who are shopping for health care and saving a ton of money. We urge people to be advocates for themselves and for their loved ones too."

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