Mark Cuban, universities use 'secret shoppers' to gauge hospital prices

Hospital price quotes vary, depending on how you ask. 

A study published Sept. 18 in JAMA Internal Medicine explored this phenomenon. Mark Cuban co-authored the report, along with affiliates of multiple universities, including Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University, both based in Houston. 

Sixty U.S. hospitals were evaluated in the study: 20 top-ranked, 20 safety-net and 20 others. The researchers sent "secret shoppers" to call each hospital and request the lowest cash price for vaginal childbirth and brain MRI. They compared the prices given over the telephone to the prices reported on the hospitals' websites. 

For brain MRI, 85 percent of top-ranked and 50 percent of safety-net hospitals provided both phone and online prices, along with 100 percent of the hospitals surveyed that fell into neither category. For vaginal childbirth, 63 percent of top-ranked, 30 percent of safety-net and 21 percent of unclassified hospitals did so. 

The prices given on the phone were "substantially different from those posted online," but were not always lower, according to Vivian Ho, PhD, a co-author on the study and a chair in the economics department at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. 

"There were multiple hospitals with online prices that were greater than $20,000 (for vaginal childbirth), but telephone prices of less than $10,000," according to the report. "For brain MRI, two hospitals provided telephone prices of more than $5,000 when their online prices were approximately $2,000."

Although hospitals are required to post prices online under the Hospital Price Transparency Rule, many do not comply. The study demonstrates hospitals' difficulties with providing a clear answer to patients, and patients' subsequent struggles to compare prices and understand their care costs, according to the authors. 

"Transparency is critical to changing the trajectory of health care costs in this country," said Mr. Cuban in a Sept. 20 news release. "Our paper shows that while some progress has been made in hospital transparency, we still have a ways to go."

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