Hospitals' confusing online price lists give patients a headache

Hospital pricing lists confuse patients

A new federal rule that took effect this year was supposed to make health care costs more transparent by requiring hospitals to disclose their prices to the public. But it may be adding to patients' confusion.

Nicki Pogue's recent out-of-network emergency room visit for a viral syndrome left her more fearful of her hospital bill than her illness. Pogue, whose husband is a CBS News contributor, said her insurance company only paid $3,000 of her $13,000 bill.

"I never dreamed I'd be on the hook for $10,000," Pogue said.

A new government rule that requires hospitals to post their prices online was supposed to help patients like Pogue anticipate their healthcare costs. But Jeanne Pinder, who runs Clear Health Costs, a website where consumers can look up medical prices, said even she is confused by the hospital price lists.

The first problem, she said, is the lists are hard to interpret. There are no uniform standards for how procedures and prices are described.

So on one New York hospital's website, if you go to find out how much treatment for an ear infection will cost, its page will give several listings for "ear," but no clarity on what you might actually pay. Pinder said the second issue is that those list prices are too high, because they don't factor in insurance payments or Medicare's rates, which are lower.

"I think the most useful information is that the prices are wildly inflated," Pinder said.

Some hospitals like St. Luke's University Health Network in Pennsylvania have launched their own price-checking pages.

"A good next step for hospitals would be to provide greater transparency into what patients will actually be required to pay out of pocket," said executive Francine Botek.