Women giving birth in the United States without experiencing any medical complications can be charged anywhere between $3,296 and $37,227, according to a new study conducted by researchers at the University of California at San Francisco. And the dramatically different pricing at different hospitals doesn’t lend itself to any kind of logic.
Researchers studied about 100,000 births in California, and found that women having babies just a few miles apart could be charged prices that varied by more than $15,000. Institutional and market factors — like the hospital’s non-profit or for-profit status, whether the hospital incurs a lot of uncompensated costs by serving a large population of low-income patients, and the mother’s age and length of stay — only explained about a third of the price fluctuations, according to researchers.
“The majority of the discrepancies couldn’t be explained and there was no consistent pattern,” Dr. Y. Hsia, an associate professor of emergency medicine and the lead author of the study, told ABC News.
That may seem like it would spur expectant parents to shop around a little bit and select a cheaper hospital, but Hsia noted that comparison shopping is virtually impossible. Doctors and other hospital staff typically have no idea what health services, including the care related to childbirth, will end up costing. Patients can’t know for sure what they’ll be expected to pay until they receive their bill.
Other data in this area has drawn similar conclusions. As a whole, Americans medical bills are random, and a lack of price transparency in the industry prevents people from realizing when they’re patronizing one of the most expensive hospitals in the country. A recent analysis in the New York Times found that giving birth in America costs more than anywhere else in the world, although that doesn’t translate to better quality of care. In fact, U.S. hospital prices are simply artificially high, sometimes charging patients up to ten times more than the actual price of the services they’re receiving.
That’s contributed to the fact that one in three Americans skip out on medical care because it’s just too expensive — and that’s why Hsia and her fellow researchers were interested in delving into this topic in the first place.
“Recently, hospital charges have come to the forefront of political, popular and medical discourse due to their inexplicable magnitude and devastating effects on specific patients,” they write. “While insurers typically negotiate lower reimbursements, these full, inflated charges are still billed to the 22 percent of American adults aged 19–64 who are uninsured and to privately insured patients receiving care out of network, contributing in large part to the 57 percent of US bankruptcies that result from medical bills.”
Although the new study focused specifically on California, Hsia believes the findings have implications for the rest of the country, too. “I am certain that this variation is not isolated to California,” she told Bloomberg News. “The only place where this might be different is certain states where they’re starting to put caps on spending like in Massachusetts.”