I keep reading that the US Health System should be a "free market" with competition.

To have an free market, one needs to be able to check the prices. I want to compare price tags. I have a patient who needs a CT scan of the abdomen and pelvis with and without contrast. So can I, as a doctor, find out the price?

I start making phone calls:

I call AIM Specialty Health, a procedure clearing house hired by many insurers here, to get prior authorization for the CT of the abdomen and pelvis with and without contrast. They ask for the usual identifying information: my name, tax id, NPI number, patient name, insurance number, check my address, phone number, fax number. They ask for the ICD-9 codes -- codes for the diagnosis. I know those. They ask for the CPT code, which is the procedure code for the test. I have to scramble to find the book and look it up: 74178. With the brain MRI the other day they volunteered site specific charges. Not this time. The representative said they didn't know. I asked for prior authorization in Poulsbo, since that was most reasonable for the brain MRI. I asked what the patient's copay is: AIM does not know.

Call to Premara Blue Cross, which is the patient's insurance company. They can tell me that the patient has a $10,500 deductible each year. She will have to pay that much before the insurance pays anything. I ask them what it will cost at different sites. They say they can't give me that information.

Next I call 5 different sites to get the price for that CPT code/proceedure.
Call to my local hospital: Charged amount is $4200.00
Call to a free standing radiology clinic in Poulsbo: Charged amount $1416.00
Call to the hospital in Bremerton, south of us: $8958.00.
Call to a free standing radiology clinic further south in Silverdale:$1526.00 + $20.00 for contrast.
Call to the hospital in Port Angeles, north of us: $ 3101.70 for the facility fee. Gave me Radia's number for the physician fee.
Call to Radia and left message.
Left message with patient.

Radia called back and the fee is $346.80, so that would be added to the $3101.70 at Olympic Medical Center.

Now I know the amount BILLED at five sites. However, that is not the amount my patient will PAY.

If the site is "in network" then the site has a contract with Premara Blue Cross, which states the amount that Premara is going to pay. The patient will get an EOB, an explanation of benefits, from the insurance. "Benefits" is an interesting choice of words. The patient has paid for the insurance so that they will cover the bills. Is that a "benefit"?

On the EOB, it will state the amount that was billed for the service. Next it will state the amount "allowed". "Allowed" is misleading. To me it implies that the insurance has held the cost down. But the insurance "allowed" the site to be "in network" because the doctor/site signed a contract. So this is a contracted price or agreed upon price.

I want to know the allowed/contracted/agreed upon price.

Call to the WA State Office of the Insurance Commissioner. The office says that the patient should be able to request the allowed cost for a specific site. Each site has a separate contract with the health insurance, so the allowed cost could be different at each site.

Call to Premara Blue Cross. This time they say that it's not that they refused the information, it's that it was not available. Now the representative says that they need the "units or minutes billed." I don't know what that is, but I will find out. I ask if that is the only other thing that I need. They say yes, but I cannot contact the same rep directly. I have to go through the rigamarole each time: my name, my tax id, patient's name, patient's insurance identification number, my clinic address, fax number, phone number, sometimes the patient phone number. Usually I have to punch 4 or five of these into the automated system and then have to repeat it all when I reach a human being.

Call to Poulsbo. The units refer to 100 units of contrast. Some patients will need more, up to 200 units.

Call to Premara Blue Cross again. I go over everything with representative Hailey, who then wants to know the amount that Poulsbo is billing. Explained that I was told only the units were needed. She put me on hold and checked with Poulsbo. She is quoted the same price.

Continuing with call to Premara Blue Cross. Hailey has entered everything and doesn't get a result. She says she doesn't know. I explain that they have a contract with Poulsbo that names an actual amount. She transfers me to another department after 25 minutes. The representative there says that she can give the allowed amount information to the provider doing the test, that is, to Poulsbo. I explained that the WA State Office of the Insurance Commissioner says that a patient can indeed request that information. I asked if they are refusing it to the patient. Rep repeats that she can give it to that provider but not me. I offer to have the patient in for a visit and get them on speaker phone and again request the information. Without the information, I will strongly consider filing a complaint with the state insurance commission. She decides to transfer me. That's at 30 min and I am again put on hold.

The call to Premara Blue Cross ended after 45 min and 37 seconds and the third representative in the provider relations department states that if they get a call from Poulsbo that they could tell THEM the contracted allowable amount. Again stated that the insurance commissioner's office says that the patient can request the amount. Are they and will they refuse it to the patient? Representative Whitney says that she has access only to provider accounts and that the contract with Poulsbo is proprietary information*. I say that I think health insurance is also a contract between the patient and the insurance and surely the patient can ask what it will cost in advance. I stated that I would be calling the patient and the state insurance commissioner's office again.

I talk to the patient. She will now call the insurance and ask the "allowed" amount for this site. I give her the diagnosis code, CPT code and units billed.

She calls back. Premara says "around $600.00".

I call Poulsbo and ask if they will check the contracted amount. They call Premara. They call me back.

If she only has 100 units of contrast, the CT of the abdomen and pelvis with and without contrast will cost her $641.00, as the "allowed" amount by contract between her insurance and the radiology site.

I still do not know the "allowed"/contracted amount for the other four sites, so I have failed in my attempt at comparing price tags. I only know the amount the sites would bill. The "allowed"/contracted amount for each site could be different. The hospitals bill more because they have a "facility" fee. I think this means that they are allowed to factor in various hospital costs. Even so, it seems outrageous that one hospital bills twice as much as the other two and more than six times as much as the least expensive site, but the allowed amount might be lower then the billed amount.

I don't think this is a free market. I think it is an obscured market. And this is just one procedure and one single charge. Think of a hospital stay.

AIM Specialty Health http://aimspecialtyhealth.com/about-aim/guidelines
Washington State Office of the Insurance Commissioner is at http://www.insurance.wa.gov/
Premara Blue Cross https://www.premera.com/wa/visitor/

*When I called about the MRI, why wasn't the information about what is billed at different sites proprietary then?

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