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The $10 Blood Test…Now Only $10,000!

If you want to get a blood test in California, it could cost you anywhere from $10 to $10,000 for the exact same test. WaPo reports that researchers at the University of California–San Francisco studied the prices that more than a hundred California hospitals charged for blood tests in 2011. The results were surprising:

The median charge for a basic metabolic panel, which measures sodium, potassium and glucose levels, among other indicators, was $214. But hospitals charged from $35 to $7,303, depending on the facility. None of the hospitals were identified.

The biggest range involved charges for a lipid panel, a test that measures cholesterol and triglycerides, a type of fat (lipid), in the blood. The median charge was $220, but costs ranged from a minimum of $10 to a maximum of $10,169. Yes, more than $10,000 for a blood test that doctors typically order for older adults, to check their cholesterol levels.

A blood test is one of the most basic medical procedures, standardized across all providers. What accounts for the differences? The short answer is: nobody knows. The only correlation with price the researchers found was that “county hospitals and teaching hospitals had lower prices than non-teaching hospitals, not-for-profit and for-profit hospitals.” But they didn’t think this was anywhere near a complete account of how such wide variations could become possible. After years of debate over Obamacare, we’re still not much closer to understanding our system, much less knowing how to reform it.

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  • ljgude

    I do know the answer to the question of why charges vary so much ever since I read Steven Brill’s 1913 Time Magazine article Bitter Pill. He points out that every hospital has an undisclosed maximum price list called “The Chargemaster” and if they are catpurses they will stick you with that price if you have no means of defending yourself against it. Like having an insurance company that has negotiated a lower rate. However researchers like those mentioned above may or may not be quoted the chargemaster rate as is obvious from the range of prices they report. So the real answer is that hospitals can charge whatever they like and therefore can quote whatever price they like. So in fact there is no real price for researchers to discover. The only real price is the one you are charged.

  • Some Rabbit

    What the market (aka: insurers) will bear.

  • ojfl

    This has more to do with third party payer systems. In that sense the price of individual components matter little as long as the aggregate goes in the right direction.

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