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Hospitals required to post prices online, but challenges still exist for consumers

Posted: 4:45 PM, Jan 09, 2019
Updated: 2019-01-10 12:02:15Z
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Patients don't have any idea how much a trip to the hospital will be, and they're forced to play the guessing game until the bill arrives in the mail. But a new federal law has changed that.

The law, which took effect January 1, requires hospitals to post their prices online. The whole idea is more transparency and less sticker shock for you when you get the bill.

Have you ever wondered how much it might cost to have an MRI of your chest? How about $4,317?

What about having your appendix removed? That could cost you $35,490.

And did you know a heart transplant could set you back nearly a million dollars? The list price is $984,899.

Those prices and thousands more are now listed on the websites of Nashville hospitals.

Thanks to a new federal law, the cost of all procedures and services must be posted online.

"This is helpful for consumers to have this information," said Andy Spears, executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action.

He called it a win for consumers, but as we found, getting the real information you need can be challenging.

Spears tried it as well and described it as, "definitely confusing."

For starters, just finding the price list on the websites of the big hospitals in town, run by Vanderbilt, St. Thomas, and TriStar, we discovered, is tricky. And the price list itself can be just a long spread sheet with confusing abbreviations and codes.

On top of that, the hospitals all post lengthy disclaimers, informing consumers that the information given here does not necessarily represent what the actual cost will be or what the patient will owe because that depends on whether the patient has insurance or not and whether the service provider is in or out of network.

"And then it was difficult to find very specific procedures and what that typical cost would look like. And it was difficult to tell from one hospital to the next if you're paying for the exact same thing," Spears explained.

That perhaps was the most frustrating thing for Spears, that it's nearly impossible for consumers to be able to use this information to compare prices and find the best deal.

In fact, when we checked the price of an EKG or electrocardiogram which measures heart activity, we found a huge difference in prices St. Thomas Midtown listed their EKG for $60, TriStar Centennial had $562, and Vanderbilt's listed price was $644, though it's impossible to tell whether we were truly comparing apples to apples.

Still Spears believes posting this information is a good start. And he suggested that consumers check the price list and then call the hospital to get a more accurate and patient specific quote.

"I'm hopeful that as this process goes forward, hospitals will get better at the information they provide, maybe their billing departments will get tired of answering questions and they'll put more information out there," Spears told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

When asked about the disparity in prices for an EKG, Vanderbilt told us late this afternoon that they offer several different types of EKG’s, some at lower prices, depending on a patient’s needs.
This just further shows how confusing and complex this process can be for consumers.

And since it can be tricky, as we discovered, to find the prices, we've made it easy for you.

Here are links to the price lists of the hospitals in town:
Vanderbilt Medical Center's Price List

St. Thomas Health's Price List

TriStar Centennial's Price List