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Transparent Hospital Pricing Exposes Wild Fluctuation, Even Within Miles

[UPDATED on Jan. 29]

The federal government’s new rule requiring hospitals to post prices for their services is intended to allow patients to shop around and compare prices, a step toward price transparency that California has mandated since 2005.

California Healthline examined the price lists — known in hospital lingo as “chargemasters” — of four large acute care hospitals in Oakland, Calif., and another four in Los Angeles, using the documents California hospitals have been reporting annually to the California Department of Public Health — the same information the federal government is now requiring all hospitals to post on their websites.

The comparison of some basic procedures found wide-ranging prices, sometimes between hospitals that are part of the same network or located just miles from each other. For instance, the list price on a liter of basic saline solution for intravenous use ranged from $56 to $383, nearly seven times as much. A brain MRI with contrast was priced from $3,200 to $8,800 at the hospitals.

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Whether you will be able to determine the best prices when you have a need for a hospital is another question. KHN senior correspondent Julie Appleby and California Healthline’s Barbara Feder Ostrov recently wrote about this new rule and found price lists befuddling to most anyone without an advanced medical degree.

[Correction: Price data in this article’s charts were incorrectly assigned to UCLA Children’s Hospital instead of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. The charts were corrected at 3 p.m. PT on Jan. 29.]

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