How to get lower prices on health care

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- You'd shop for the best price on a car or refrigerator. But health care? Yes, you can comparison shop and save thousands.

Sue Kiger is a nurse who works at a salon helping women who have hair loss. Sue has no health insurance. Her doctor recently told her she needed some blood testing, so she went to a hospital and was told the price would be $1,500.

"I said, 'That's ridiculous'. In fact, I made the comment 'Do you have a gun underneath that desk because this is robbery'," says Sue.

Then the clerk told Sue that because she's uninsured, the price could be discounted to $480. Sue still thought that was outrageous.

"The people running the test or using the equipment couldn't be any different from an outside lab," Sue says.

So Sue called an outside lab, Quest Diagnostics, and got the tests for $49 dollars. That's about 90 percent less.

"The lab was drawn one day and the doctor had the test results the next day," says Sue.

Sue knows what many others don't -- you can and should shop for health care. From lab tests to scans. Even surgery. Don't think a lower price means lower quality, says the head of the Kansas Health Institute.

"In fact, often it's the opposite. High quality care often costs less. There are fewer complications, fewer re-do's, and actually the cost can be lower for better quality care," says Dr. Robert St. Peter.

He adds that in the same community, prices can vary as much as 10 times for the same medical service.

Quest says its price for Sue was lower because it's a very large company that partners with suppliers to provide the highest quality testing at lower cost. But Quest also says that the price Sue got isn't what everyone gets.

"No, that 49 dollars is not set in stone. Actually our pricing structure is very complex so it's dependent upon the financial needs," says Jody Reilly of Quest.

She's referring to the financial needs of the uninsured. But shopping around can also save hundreds or even thousands if you're insured. That's because there are higher out-of-pocket costs these days -- higher deductibles and co-pays.

Some big insurers including United HealthCare make it easier for you to shop. They have cost calculators or estimators online. Meryl Lin checked the price for her to have a CT scan of the abdomen and pelvis at Kansas City metro facilities. The estimates ranged from $302 to $1,857, with out-of-pocket costs ranging from $302 to $600. So she could save close to $300 by going to the lowest price facility.

Sue says it didn't take much work for her to get a good deal on her blood tests.

"They'll tell you right over the phone what the cost is gonna be," she says.

But Dr. St. Peter cautions that it can get complicated if you're shopping for surgery. That's because surgery involves many different charges including the doctors, operating room, recovery and hospital stay. So you need to ask about all of them.

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