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Cost of Prostate Cancer Surgery Varies Widely

Fees have no reflection on quality, researchers say

continued...

The "good news," Erickson said, is that 70 percent of hospitals did provide a price estimate, which is a larger response than some past studies have seen.

The not-so-good news: The "patient" here was a researcher who could ask savvy questions. Even so, a typical inquiry involved talking to four or five people, for up to 69 minutes, Erickson said. It's not clear how a real patient would fare on the phone, he added.

And even if you get price information, "that's only half the story," Emanuel said. "You also need to know if you're getting a Yugo or a Mercedes."

Uwe Reinhardt, a health care economics expert at Princeton University in New Jersey, agreed.

"Telling Americans to 'shop' for health care is like pushing someone into Macy's blindfolded, then saying, 'OK, go shopping,'" Reinhardt said.

Not only does price have little relation to quality, he said, but the estimates hospitals give are just that. The actual charges could be greater.

The study did uncover one way for patients to get a financial break. One-third of hospitals said they would give a discount if the "patient" paid up front. On average, that meant one-third off the quoted price -- but some hospitals went as high as 80 percent.

For patients who can pay in advance, Erickson said, it might be worthwhile to call different hospitals and ask about a discount.

To Reinhardt, the findings spotlight a convoluted system. "This study points up the sheer absurdity of our health care system, which most of the public isn't even aware of," he said.

Erickson noted that these issues will continue under Obamacare, even though fewer Americans will lack health insurance. Many people, he said, will either remain uninsured or have high deductibles or copays -- and, presumably, care about prices.

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