Get That MRI Cheaper

blood pressure

Last year, I had the displeasure of contracting a viral nerve infection. I wouldn’t wish that kind of pain on my worst enemy. (Well, actually, there is this one woman…but that’s another story.) In any case, my doc ordered an MRI of my spine and my brain.

The word MRI struck fear in my heart. No, I’m not claustrophobic. The cost alone made my spine tingle. Past experience told me that two MRIs could easily set me back five to 10 grand.

Fortunately, I’m a complainer. So I began bitching to anyone who would listen, and one of those people (my brother, a doctor) suggested I call around to different facilities and ask what they were charging.

I have no problem price-shopping for, say, a ski trip or a sweater. But for a big, important medical test like an MRI?

Yet my brother was right. My local hospital wanted more than $7,600 for the two MRIs. But I could get the exact same tests at a freestanding facility for $950.

You might question the wisdom of bargain-hunting for healthcare. I get that. Past experience would indicate that a $15 haircut is never a good idea. Ditto for the $9.99 All-You-Can-Eat sushi buffet.

However, when it comes to medical testing, “higher cost doesn’t always translate to higher quality,” says Chris Riedl, head of product innovation for Aetna.

“I wouldn’t necessarily recommend price shopping a joint replacement or cardiac procedure,” Riedl says, “but for many diagnostic tests, including CT scans, MRIs, and colonoscopies, quality is not likely to vary from facility to facility.”

More proof:  Last month, the Annals of Internal Medicine published a comprehensive review of past studies on cost versus quality of patient care. The study confirmed the association to be small to moderate at best.

Ironically, few healthcare consumers stop to ask: Does this (appointment, prescription, procedure) really have to cost this much?

But times are changing. As more Americans opt for high-deductible insurance plans—the number has tripled in the last five years with 13.5 million people with high deductibles—so does the demand for pricing transparency. (I, myself, have a $10,000 deductible, and it’s certainly motivated me to become a savvy shopper.)

Fortunately, a growing number of industry insiders are joining the cause. “Almost three years ago, we launched a web-based tool that provides cost comparisons for more than 550 commonly utilized health services,” says Aetna’s Riedl.

And Aetna is by no means the only insurer now providing this data. United Health Care, and Cigna, for example, offers similar tools, available to policy-holders.

Likewise, web portals such as NewChoiceHealth provide patients with a list of pricing and facilities in their area for more than a dozen different medical tests. (Keep in mind, these prices do not take into account that your insurer may have a better negotiated rate with any given facility.)

If, at any point, you suspect that you’re paying more than fair market value, HealthCareBlueBook will calculate the average price that people (both insured and uninsured) are paying for a particular service in your area. If the place you’ve called is charging more, ask if they’ll accept a lesser amount.

I know, it sounds crazy. You’re not buying a car. However, it’s sort of the same model. The name HealthcareBlueBook is indeed a play on the name Kelley Blue Book, the long-standing source for car pricing. Like the automotive market, healthcare is one of the few spheres where consumers have been slow to demand clarity on costs.

It’s good to know that these days you probably can get a better price when someone looks under your hood.