Study draws attention to the wide range of charges for lab tests in California hospitals

Aug. 18, 2014

New UC San Francisco research shows significant price differences for ten common blood tests in California hospitals. The analysis of charges at more than 150 California hospitals looked at blood tests that are often required of patients, such as lipid panel, basic metabolic panel, and complete blood cell count with differential white cell count.

Patients were reportedly charged $10 for a blood cholesterol test at one institution, but more than $10,000 at another; prices ranged from $35 to more than $7,000 for a basic metabolic panel; charges for a CBC ranged from $20 to more than $7,000. The study was published recently in the online journal BMJ Open.

“To expect patients to be rational consumers is unrealistic when the system itself is irrational,” says the study's lead author, Renee Hsia, PhD. “There is very little that we are able to point to that explains the variation, suggesting that the variations are not predictable and therefore a sign of huge inefficiency within the healthcare pricing system.”

Through its vice president for external affairs, Jan Emerson-Shea, the California Hospital Association argued that the study is misleading because the large majority of patients do not pay the listed prices, but rather pay discounted amounts that their insurance plans have negotiated. “Charges are meaningless data; virtually no one pays charges,” Emerson noted. The researchers respond that listed prices nevertheless are used to begin negotiations with insurers, and thus play a role in rising healthcare costs. Read the BMJ online study.

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