On the MHA price check Web site you can pull up a list of hospitals in the state and their prices for 50 of the most common in-patient procedures. The information includes the average length of stay for that procedure and the average cost. It also includes a cost-comparison with other hospitals.
For example, at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis treatment for an acute heart attack costs on average $41,000 for about five-and-a-half days of care. That same procedure at Region's Hospital in St. Paul is $12,000 cheaper, roughly $29,000 for about four-and-a-half days of care. Bruce Rueben, President of the Minnesota Hospital Association, the industry group that created the Web site says consumers can now make comparisons.
"It's a very good thing that people are going to be able to now look at prices and ask questions about what goes into the prices of a particular hospital's services, because there are a lot of reasons for differences. But people need to understand what they are to decide for themselves whether those differences make sense to them," he says.
According to Rueben, some of the reasons for price variation have to do with things like demographics. For example some hospitals treat more uninsured patients or patients with government-funded insurance that might not reimburse the hospital for the full cost of a patient's care. Hospitals in those situations usually factor in these extra expenses when putting together their prices.
Technology is another reason prices vary widely. Hospitals with expensive new technology and equipment may have to charge more than a hospital with older technology.
But patients won't find these explanations on the Price Check Web site. If they want to know the reason why a particular hospital charges more than its peers, they'll have to call the hospital directly and ask.
Twila Brase says most patients won't bother because they're not on the hook for the full price anyway.
"What we have here are prices that nobody pays," she says.
Brase is President of the non-profit group Citizens' Council on Health Care based in St. Paul. She says the only price that most patients care about is the price they pay out of their own pockets. That price is shaped by discounts that insurers negotiated with hospitals. Brase says that's information the Web site doesn't provide.
"If what they have to do is go to their insurer and try to figure out what their out-of-pocket cost are, does it really matter what the charge is?"
Bruce Rueben concedes that the pricing information is limited and might not be useful for people with more traditional health insurance plans. But he says there is a growing number of Minnesotans with insurance that requires them to pay a lot more of their up-front health care costs. Employees at the MHA, for example, have high-deductible health plans combined with health savings accounts. Rueben says these types of plans encourage patients to be cost-conscious.
"For us the first $5000 dollars come out-of-pocket, so my colleagues here might look at this Web site, say if someone was expecting a baby or something like that, then you've got some time to plan."
The Minnesota Hospital Price Check Web site does not include information on quality, although the hospital association sponsors another Web site that does measure hospital performance. The Price Check site also does not include information on doctors fees that could add significantly to a hospital bill.