Blood Test Charges Vary Widely Among Calif. Hospitals, Study Finds
The listed prices of common outpatient blood tests at California hospitals can vary by hundreds or thousands of dollars, depending on the facility, according to a new study published in the BMJ Open, Kaiser Health News' "Capsules" reports (Caryn Rabin, "Capsules," Kaiser Health News, 8/15).
Details of Study
For the study, researchers conducted a cross-sectional analysis of hospital charges for 10 of the most common outpatient blood tests performed at non-federal California hospitals in 2011.
Data were obtained from the California Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, to which such hospitals are required annually to submit their average costs for 25 common outpatient procedures (Hsia et al., BMJ Open, 8/14).
Overall, data from between 160 and 180 hospitals were included in the study, but no providers were specifically identified.
Researchers found a significant variation in charges for the 10 blood types studied.
For example, the average charge for a basic metabolic panel was $214, but hospitals in the state charged anywhere from $35 to $7,303 for that blood test.
The study found that:
- The largest variation was for a lipid panel, with the charge varying from $10 to $10,169; and
- The smallest variation was for a test to evaluate red and white blood cells, with the charge varying from $37 to $278 (Sun, "To Your Health," Washington Post, 8/15).
Researchers said that they could not identify a rational explanation for the wide variation of prices throughout their analysis. However, they noted that teaching hospitals and government hospitals generally did not charge as much for blood tests compared with other providers ("Capsules," Kaiser Health News, 8/15).
According to the researchers, "it is notable how few characteristics were significant predictors of the charges patients faced." They added, "For instance, our results indicate that a hospital's case mix and labor costs ... do not affect charges for these common procedures" (BMJ Open, 8/14).
Renee Hsia, the study's lead author and an associate professor of emergency medicine at UC-San Francisco, said, "When people try to understand why prices are the way they are, we have no ability to explain it. That is the take-home message."
California Hospital Association officials dismissed the study as irrelevant, arguing that most patients pay discounted rates that their insurers negotiate for them.
CHA Vice President for External Affairs Jan Emerson-Shea said, "Charges are meaningless data -- virtually no one pays charges."
However, the researchers argued that the blood tests' list prices can drive up health care costs because they are the "starting point for negotiations with insurers and patients" ("Capsules," Kaiser Health News, 8/15).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.