This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on June 18, 2014.
Doctors may say no two prostate cancer cases are the same, and a new study reveals their hospital bills aren’t either. Especially in the Bay Area.
In a survey of 100 U.S. hospitals, the gap between the highest and lowest prostate cancer surgery prices was nearly $125,000. And the nation’s priciest quote hits close to home.
Three Bay Area hospitals were included in the study. Researchers from the University of Iowa won’t say which ones, but the local cost estimates were all above the national average, ranging from $49,850 to $135,000.
The scientists, who published their study in the journal Urology, quickly point out most patients will never be asked to pay these prices. The study’s senior author, Dr. Bradley Erickson, explained the numbers represent a hospital’s “opening bid” when asking a patient’s insurance company for payment. The insurance company then negotiates a lower rate, and the patient forks over his co-pays and deductible.
Uninsured patients, however, could be charged the full amount, although 33 of the hospitals surveyed said they’d offer a discount if surgeries were pre-paid or paid promptly.
Erickson said higher prices don’t necessarily mean better care. And because nearly one-third of surveyed hospitals did not provide a price quote, it’s almost impossible for cost-conscious patients to shop around.
The University of Iowa researchers published a similar study last year showing hip replacement charge estimates varied 10-fold among hospitals. And U.S. government Medicare and Medicaid data released this year also show big disparities in what doctors and hospitals charge for the same service.
Here are the numbers:
The average price hospitals in the survey quoted for prostate cancer surgery.
The most expensive prostate surgery quote, which was 13 times higher than the least expensive one, $10,100.
The number of prostate cancer surgeries performed in the United States each year, according to government data. Prostate cancer is the most common cancer among men.
The number of hospitals, out of 100 contacted, that failed to provide a price quote. Billing representatives either refused to do it, or did not return up to three phone calls.
The number of hospitals in the study that provided a written copy of the charges they quoted.