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How Much Does an MRI Cost In California: $255? $973.25? $2,925?

Jeanne PinderEarly results from our California crowdsourcing project on MRI prices are in. Payments range from $255 to $2,925.15. MRI pricing is a complete mystery: What should you pay? Can you ask for a discount? We’ve been looking at health-care prices for three years, so if we say it’s a mystery, we can imagine what it looks like to you.

How much should you pay? Well, one person was told the price is $1,850, but if you pay up front, you can save almost $1,300.

The note on our form, shared by our community member: “I was told procedure would be 1850. I have a 7500 deductible. So I talked to the office mgr who said if I paid upfront and agreed not to report the procedure to Blue Cross, that it would be $580.”

On our Facebook page, one contributor wrote, “I was going to be billed $830 through my PPO for an MRI. The cash price? $500.”

This is the second part of our crowdsourcing project in California with KQED public radio in San Francisco and KPCC/Southern California Public Radio in Los Angeles. We have been asking people to share pricing information for MRI’s, especially of the back; last month we collected mammogram pricing.

A note: We are often asked in this crowdsourcing prototype project if we believe what we are being told by people who fill out our online form at the PriceCheck page. The answer: yes, we do. Though some of our community members have said their bills are confusing, or the coding they see on the bills doesn’t match what we’re collecting, we believe our contributors’ shares. We have seen wide variations in health-care pricing.

So: here are early results.

Lower-back MRI: $255? $602.85? $973.25? $1,660?

Eight identical MRI’s, and eight vastly different payments.

No. 1: We heard from one Kaiser member, who received an MRI of the lower back, without contrast or dye (CPT code 72148) at the Kaiser Antioch Medical Center on Sand Creek Road in Antioch, Calif. This person was charged $973.25 and paid $973.25; insurance paid nothing.Comment: “This price was the contracted amount through my insurance. Deductible had not been met so I was responsible for all charges. This does not include the two office visits required to obtain and analyze the results.”

No. 2: Same kind of MRI, code 72148, at Radnet Medical Imaging at 3440 California St. in San Francisco. This person was charged $1,660 and paid $1,660, out of HSA funds. (Note: Our ClearHealthCosts pricing survey included that Radnet location, and they did tell our survey agent that their cash price is $1,660.)

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My Family’s Obamacare

How will the Affordable Care Act affect my family and me? The answer, like the law itself, is complicated. There will be as many stories about health reform as there are families. But I’m confident that most of these stories will be good.

I say this both as a health-policy wonk, with my own health policy consulting firm, and as a husband and father. My wife and I live in Sacramento, California, and we have a five-year-old son. My wife also happens to have a pre-existing health condition. It’s nothing life-threatening but it’s just serious enough that she has been turned down for regular health insurance coverage. Up to a third of Americans face a similar issue, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Finding affordable, high-quality health coverage for my family has been, even for me, an “expert” in the area of health insurance, very complicated and frustrating. So I work with a health insurance broker to understand my options.

Currently, we have “COBRA” coverage for my wife, a type of health insurance you can get for 18 months after you’ve left employer-sponsored health coverage and that is available regardless of health history. It is expensive, though, costing us $655 per month. Then, since I don’t have an employer to provide coverage, I buy a separate policy in the so-called “individual market” to cover my son and myself. That costs $482 per month.

So before we get to any out-of-pocket medical expenses, we’re shelling out $13,644 per year in health insurance premiums. That’s actually quite a bit less than the average premium cost of $18,430 for people with employer-sponsored insurance (as calculated in the Milliman Medical Index of 2013), but the difference is that people with employer-sponsored insurance don’t have to take out their checkbook and pay the entire bill, since their company covers part of it and takes the rest out of their pay.

Our coverage is good for what we pay, but not extraordinarily so. It’s a pair of similar PPO (Preferred Provider Organization) products through Blue Shield of California that have a fairly broad network of doctors and hospitals.

Will my life get less complicated and frustrating on January 1, 2014, the day that health reform coverage starts? I believe it will.

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Obamacare to the Rescue

I want to apologize to President Obama. But first, some background.

I found out three weeks ago I have cancer. I’m 49 years old, have been married for almost 20 years and have two kids. My husband has his own small computer business, and I run a small nonprofit in the San Fernando Valley. I am also an artist. Money is tight, and we don’t spend it frivolously. We’re just ordinary, middle-class people, making an honest living, raising great kids and participating in our community, the kids’ schools and church.

We’re good people, and we work hard. But we haven’t been able to afford health insurance for more than two years. And now I have third-stage breast cancer and am facing months of expensive treatment.

To understand how such a thing could happen to a family like ours, I need to take you back nine years to when my husband got laid off from the entertainment company where he’d worked for 10 years. Until then, we had been insured through his work, with a first-rate plan. After he got laid off, we got to keep that health insurance for 18 months through COBRA, by paying $1,300 a month, which was a huge burden on an unemployed father and his family.

By the time the COBRA ran out, my husband had decided to go into business for himself, so we had to purchase our own insurance. That was fine for a while. Every year his business grew. But insurance premiums were steadily rising too. More than once, we switched carriers for a lower rate, only to have them raise rates significantly after a few months.
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