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When in doubt? Ask. Not in doubt? Ask anyway.

We can’t reiterate enough how important it is to ask about health care prices before purchasing. Whether you’re completely in the dark, have a hunch that you know, or had the secretary tell you “it’s covered” – ask anyway. This doesn’t just apply to the question “Is it covered by my insurance?” Asking is important for many other questions such as:

  • Is that lab fee included in the cost?
  • Is the digital machine more expensive than the older model?
  • What quality issues are there?
  • Is that price for with or with and without contrast?
  • Do you offer any financial aid packages or “hardship rates”?
  • Do you have any discounts going on?

The last two questions, we are finding at CHC, are especially good to ask. Most times a medical provider will tell you about their discounts or financial aid packages. Other times they will not. And just because one branch of a parent company or chain provider  (i.e. Planned Parenthood, LabCorp, or California Radiology) is offering a special discount doesn’t mean the others are.

We learned this while price reporting for MRIs in the Los Angeles area. California Radiology is an L.A.-based chain of radiology centers with six locations in Los Angeles County. We called the Wilshire office and they said they were currently offering a $100 discount on MRI exams. No other California Radiology branch, however, was offering this discount.

What’s more, we were told at the Huntington Beach branch that all California Radiology locations offer the same prices. This turned out not to be the case – one example being that the Burbank, Downey and Valley Radiology centers offer ultrasounds for $130, while the Huntington Beach and Wilshire centers offer the same procedure for $100.

Also: we suggest that you take notes about such matters. We’re big note-takers over here. When we collect the prices, we keep a record of where the price came from, who delivered it and when it was delivered. That way, if we need to go back and check something, we always have good hard information. You might really hope to have good notes like the ones we take someday.

Many health care providers are merging or acquiring smaller groups these days. That means that prices, policy and even phone numbers are changing. If you ask, you’ll be much less confused.

On quality: In health care, most people have no information about either price or quality. This is a market that’s completely opaque for both measures. We can’t tell you that a $3,000 MRI is 10 times better than a $300 MRI. Our view is that when people are aware of the price differences, and begin to ask questions about why there is such a wild variation, quality metrics will come to the fore.