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New online pricing tools for hospitals could prove more confusing than helpful

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A new law requires hospitals across the country to post their prices online.  While it sounds like a great tool to help budget for tests and surgeries you may need, some worry it could be misleading and confusing.

It's no secret that a trip to the hospital isn't cheap.

“Cost is high for everybody,” said benefits consultant, Henry Nicsinger.

But now, it could be a little easier to know how much it'll cost before you get the bill.

“Pricing was kind of always available, but you had to go dig for it,” said Nicsinger.

A new federal law forces hospitals to post what's called a "charge master" online.  But looking at all those rows and columns, chock full of numbers and codes, is enough to make your head spin.

“The problem is in this fight for pricing and pricing transparency, the people that get affected by it are the members that utilize the services and we are kind of left to wherever it falls or settles down,” said Nicsinger.

While laws require hospitals to charge the same amount for any particular service, there is still a lot of discrepancy in what you end up paying.  That's in large part because insurance companies haggle with hospitals over costs.

“Unfortunately, because each insurance company has different contracts with the providers, it’s not just what the providers charge, but it`s also the insurance companies and how they cover it,” Nicsinger said.

That, combined with what kind of coverage you have, ultimately determines what shows up on that dreaded bill.

And it all makes it nearly impossible to get a true "apples to apples" comparison using the new pricing sheets.

Experts also caution price shouldn't be the end-all-be-all in how you determine what healthcare to get and where you get it.

“The real aspect of how most people look for care is they get referrals from a doctor. It’s that trust element. It`s the emotional element,” said Nicsinger.

Area hospitals we checked with say price transparency is important, and that patients concerned about the costs of their healthcare can always request assistance through their provider's financial office.

We checked with several local medical providers about the new policy.

-The University of Kansas Health System said in part: “Our focus is on helping patients navigate this new tool.  Anything that keeps the conversation going about the high cost of healthcare is a good thing.”

-St. Mary’s Medical Center said: “St. Mary’s Medical Center believes that understanding health care options and what healthcare will cost is very important. In accordance with the Affordable Care Act, St. Mary’s will post our direct pay charges online in a downloadable format. It is important to note the actual amount paid by any patient varies widely and primarily depends on the type of insurance the patient has, if any. We are formatting the information in a way that will be a useful resource to help patients make informed and meaningful decisions regarding their health care.”

-HCA Midwest Health System said: “Effective January 1, 2019, the charge master and average procedure price reports will be available on each HCA Midwest health hospital website.  We have been focused on pricing transparency for many years because we believe it’s important for patients to be able to make informed choices about their healthcare and understand their financial obligations. The hospitals of HCA Midwest Health have been providing pricing estimates and information about the billing process online since 2007 and will continue to do so.  It is important to note that we also have resources available to help patients understand their bill and out-of-pocket expenses as prices are most impacted by an individual’s insurance. Contact information to reach a patient access advisor is available on our website.”

We also reached out to Truman, Shawnee Mission, North Kansas City, St. Luke’s and Liberty Hospitals. They either did not have a representative available for an on-camera interview, or declined to speak.

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