The United States has a high proportion of people without health insurance (15%) and a low proportion of people without employment (5%), resulting in millions who lack insurance but have some ability to pay. We tested whether hospitals charge similar prices for well-specified elective services to individuals paying out-of-pocket for medical care.
We surveyed the 2 largest general hospitals from every large city (population >500,000) in the United States and Canada. At each hospital we evaluated 5 diagnostic, 7 therapeutic, and 3 nonclinical services to determine the total charge to patients who pay directly.
Overall, 66 hospitals were included (average, 758 beds; not-for-profit, 97% [n=64]; teaching, 80% [n=53]). The range in charges was substantial; for example, a screening mammogram was $40 at one hospital in Los Angeles, Calif, and $346 at one hospital in Quebec City. Charges for a screening mammogram were relatively stable between 1996 and 1997 (r=0.79; 95% confidence interval, 0.68-0.87) and unrelated to the hospital's location or charges for other services. The relative amount of variation in charges was similar for high-priced and low-priced services, similar for diagnostic and therapeutic services, and similar for the United States and Canada.
Charges for the same hospital service vary substantially. Greater visibility might reduce some variation by bringing outliers into closer scrutiny. Patients seeking care and paying out-of-pocket could save financially by comparison shopping.