Cost of health care varies widely at North Bay hospitals

The prices that North Bay hospitals charge for the same procedure vary widely from one facility to another, according to data released Wednesday by the federal government.

The public release of the data will help make the U.S. health care system more affordable and accountable, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said.

"Currently, consumers don't know what a hospital is charging them or their insurance company for a given procedure, like a knee replacement, or how much of a price difference there is at different hospitals, even within the same city," Sebelius said in a statement. "This data ... will help fill that gap."

For example, Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Santa Rosa charged $44,278 for a procedure to replace a major joint or reattach a lower extremity, while nearby Memorial Hospital charged an average of $136,762, according to Medicare billing data released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In reality, Medicare and other insurers often pay hospitals far less than the "sticker price" charged by the hospitals, experts said. In the example above, Medicare paid an average of only $16,288 to Kaiser and $18,387 to Memorial Hospital.

"There are large parts of our health care system that just don't make a lot of sense," said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, a consumer advocacy coalition. "The health care pricing and prices make no sense to both lay people and experts, and there needs to be a reform of how providers are paid."

The vast disparities in how much hospitals charge reflect a variety of factors, including the populations each serve and the depth of specialties provided by the institution, health officials said. For example, Memorial Hospital is the region's sole level II trauma center, which raises the nonprofit hospital's costs.

"Memorial plays a singular role on the North Coast in terms of the complexity of care we provide," hospital spokeswoman Katy Hillenmeyer said. "The fact that other hospitals refer us their most complex, sick patients, that factors into cost."

Nobody actually pays the amount that hospitals charge, said Don Forst, director of patient financial services for Memorial. That billed amount serves as a starting point for negotiating with government providers like Medicare, private insurance companies and individuals. Uninsured patients get automatic discounts, and low-income patients also are cut a break.

"In many cases, we're lucky if we get 20 percent," Forst said. "The big problem today is that charges really are irrelevant ... it basically defaults to the highest rate, so the patients see the bill and they panic."

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