The evidence is piling up that some local hospitals are charging patients without apparent rhyme or reason. New federal data released this month shows fees climbed sharply at hospitals across the country and Tampa Bay in 2012. Also revealing is that neighboring hospitals often charged dramatically different prices for the same procedures. Such details underscore how illusory transparency is in today's health care marketplace, where consumers continue to be at a disadvantage.
This is the second straight year that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid released the average prices charged to Medicare for procedures such as joint replacements and treating heart failure — providing a window into what is driving health care inflation. The price to treat heart failure at Florida Hospital Tampa increased 27.7 percent; chest pain treatment at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg rose 26 percent.
But even beyond inflation, the numbers tell a story too few consumers are likely aware of: Local hospitals can charge radically different amounts for what is supposedly the same treatment. The cost of treating simple pneumonia at Morton Plant in Clearwater in 2012? $22,437. At Oak Hill in Brooksville, the same treatment cost $61,240.
Yet all this new information still amounts to false transparency. The federal government pays much lower rates for Medicare patients. And hospitals contend other patients also see discounts, either through negotiated health insurance plans or cash discounts, so few, if any, pay the rates reported to the government. It's like consumers are seeing the sticker price on a car but have no idea what other customers actually paid to drive the car off the lot.
These inflated rates matter — the public just doesn't know how much. A Tampa Bay Times investigation into trauma center response fees published earlier this year showed how exorbitant fees can inflate health care costs. The report uncovered that the state's largest insurer, Florida Blue, pays one for-profit hospital chain based on a percentage of the total trauma center bill. Perhaps it's no surprise that the chain, Hospital Corporation of America, has been the most aggressive in tacking on indefensible trauma center response fees, up to $33,000, just for a patient rolling in the door.
Guess which local hospitals are also charging the highest fees across the board, according to the Medicare data? They are HCA hospitals Oak Hill and Bayonet Point in Hudson. What that means for patients' pocketbooks is unclear, but it's a sure indicator that the health care system is not serving the best interests of consumers or taxpayers.
For consumers to really play a role in keeping health care costs down, they need to see honest, transparent pricing before a treatment begins. The federal government has taken a step in the right direction, but the data falls far short of the real information that is needed.