Shopping for hospital gets easier

The South Carolina Hospital Association’s new price transparency website allows patients to find out how much their local hospitals charge for a variety of services and procedures.

The South Carolina Hospital Association launched a new website this week making it easier than ever for patients to shop around for the best health care prices.

The new online tool, scpricepoint.org, allows users to compare charges for a variety of services and procedures at local hospitals.

For example, it’s now possible to find out that Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital in West Ashley charges an average of $4,747 for carpel tunnel surgery while East Cooper Medical Center charges an average of $7,926 for the same procedure.

Meanwhile, East Cooper Medical Center and Medical University Hospital usually charge a little more than $2,000 to diagnose bronchitis in their emergency departments, while Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital charges an average of $4,588 for the same evaluation.

“Nothing is more frustrating than sticker stock when you make an important purchase,” said Thorton Kirby, president of the Hospital Association. “Our hospitals work every day to improve the health of South Carolina citizens, and we’re determined to address — truthfully and candidly — the growing concern of hospital pricing in our state. ... This is a starting point for price transparency in South Carolina.”

Patients can search charges at 51 facilities across the state. All Charleston-area hospitals, except Trident Health, which is owned by Nashville, Tenn.-based Hospital Corporation of America, submitted their numbers for the new website.

“Where the website kind of fell short, in our review, is it really only published charges,” said Trident Health CEO Todd Gallati. “Charges are really just a starting place ... So often, (they) have no bearing on what me, as a patient, will ultimately pay.”

Gallati said patients can always call Trident Health to figure out the price they’ll pay for any procedure.

The Hospital Association’s new website isn’t perfect, Kirby acknowledged. The problem, he explained, is that these hospital charges only reflect the inflated sticker price for procedures. Patients, particularly those covered by Medicare, Medicaid or a private insurance plan, only pay a fraction of these retail rates.

In fact, depending on the type of insurance they carry, patients may end up paying less out of their own pocket at a hospital that charges more than their competitors because health insurance companies and health care providers negotiate these contracts behind closed doors.

“It’s impossible for hospitals to post all the prices individuals might pay because there are hundreds of insurer contracts and thousands of different insurance and payment plans,” Kirby said.

The new website encourages consumers to contact their insurance companies to find out what they’ll actually pay for treatment.

“Even if we can’t give them perfect information, we can give them better information than what we’ve been doing,” Kirby said.

The website reflects a growing push for price transparency in the larger health care industry. The S.C. Department of Health and Human Services debuted its own transparency website in early 2014. The agency, which administers Medicaid in this state, promised to post charges for a variety of procedures, but the website hasn’t been updated since last summer.

“The people that were working on that site have recently left the agency,” said Medicaid spokeswoman Colleen Mullis. “They are re-evaluating ... how it’s going to be handled.”

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.