Health & Family

Charlotte area among highest for some medical costs, survey shows

Charlotte ranks in the top four of 30 U.S. cities for the price consumers pay for four common medical procedures, according to the 2015 Castlight Health Costliest Cities Index.

For the second year, Castlight, a health care management organization based in San Francisco, produced the index based on private insurance claims and public data showing what employers and consumers actually pay for common procedures in 30 U.S. cities, including Charlotte and Raleigh.

According to Castlight, the Charlotte area, including Gastonia and Rock Hill, was the second most expensive city for CT scans and MRIs, the third most expensive for OB/GYN visits, and the fourth most expensive for preventive exams for women.

Prices for eight common medical procedures varied widely, not only across the country but within cities. For example, in Washington, D.C., the cost for a CT scan of the head or brain ranged from $78 to $1,673. The average price was $592, which still made Washington one of the lowest-cost cities.

In the Charlotte area, consumers pay from $1,048 to $1,509 for the same CT scan, making it the second most expensive city next to Indianapolis, according to Castlight. In the past year, the price for this CT scan in the Charlotte area increased by 114 percent, to an average of $1,325.

Castlight said the variations within cities and between cities occurs because, “unlike virtually every other product and service, no one knows how much health care costs until days or weeks after they purchase it.”

“The lack of transparency into prices is a major reason why employees and employers end up needlessly and unknowingly overpaying for treatments and procedures,” according to Castlight. “.…Study after study has shown there is no correlation between price and quality in healthcare. Only by exposing these wild fluctuations can we begin to rein in these costs.”

Charlotte also ranked second among the 30 cities for the cost of an MRI of the lower back, which ranged from $1,570 to $2,363. The average cost was $1,985, a 9 percent increase over last year, Castlight found.

Charlotte ranked third most expensive for OB/GYN follow-up visits, with prices ranging from $62 to $129. For preventive gynecological exams, Charlotte-area prices ranged from $108 to $250, making it the fourth most expensive city in the Castlight list. Charlotte also ranked as the sixth most expensive for preventive primary care visits, which ranged from $110 to $250.

For two other procedures, the Charlotte area had among the lowest prices. The cost of the human papillomavirus test, also called the Pap test, to detect cervical cancer averaged $32, the lowest price of all 30 cities surveyed. The cost for a mammogram in the Charlotte area ranged from $158 to $220. Nationwide, mammograms cost anywhere from $50 in Dallas to $1,898 in New York City.

In reaction to the lack of transparency in health care costs, government agencies, advocacy groups and insurance companies have in recent years begun to provide more cost data to consumers. The federal government’s website – www.hospitalcompare.hhs.gov – lists how much Medicare pays for common procedures. For their members only, Aetna insurance and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina also provide cost comparisons for procedures at specific hospitals. Tools on their websites can also calculate estimated out-of-pocket costs for members.

Karen Garloch: 704-358-5078, @kgarloch

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