Cash-paying patients in Colorado can shell out as much as $3,460 for a basic shoulder MRI – but a little shopping around can cut that cost to $450.
Many consumers will check half a dozen gas stations for a few cents difference in price, but would never think they could save thousands of dollars by checking prices for a medical test like an MRI, or Magnetic Resonance Imaging.
A Colorado Public News investigation has found the costs for an MRI vary dramatically. A survey of 18 clinics and hospitals in locations around the state found a seven-fold difference in prices for a shoulder MRI — even though medical professionals say it’s exactly the same test.
Many patients must pay cash for tests like an MRI, either because they are uninsured, or because they have high deductibles. Insurance companies pay different prices, set in negotiations.
At the Salud Clinics in suburban Denver, Dr. Virgilio Licona is frustrated by the huge gap in the price of medical procedures. Half his patients have no insurance and many must choose between medical care and buying food, he said. Some wait months to get a test like an MRI, because they must save up to pay for it.
Currently in Colorado, the only way to compare prices is to call the provider directly. Yet many are reluctant – and even refuse – to disclose their prices for services.
“If you go into a restaurant or any store, the prices are clearly marked,” said Dr. Michael Pramenko, president of the Colorado Medical Society. “In health care, we’ve sort of locked out the ability for consumers to determine costs for procedures.”
“For the uninsured person, there’s no mechanism to do this, aside from calling up each [hospital and clinic] and spend a week doing this,” Pramenko said. “Even then, the answers can be a bit muddy because no one really knows. No one person in the hospital is generally assigned to provide these types of price quotes.”