I-Team: Hospital Costs Keep Patients in the Dark - 8 News NOW

I-Team: Hospital Costs Keep Patients in the Dark

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Brian Brannman Brian Brannman

LAS VEGAS -- Hospital bills can be very confusing and costs vary widely, depending on what hospital treats the patient. It is nearly impossible for Nevadans to price-shop because hospital price lists are usually kept secret.

A bottle of aspirin from a local pharmacy costs slightly more than $2. A hospital would charge more than $4 for just one aspirin pill. It's going to take a lot more than a $4 aspirin to fix the chest pain you may feel after reading about the I-Team investigation.

When it comes to chest pain, if you suffer a heart attack, expect to have a hospital charge of $30,000.

Even though an insured patient will have most of the cost covered by health insurance, everyone ends up paying for rising health costs, either through co-pays, deductibles or payroll taxes.

In an emergency cases, a patient in an ambulance doesn't have any choice of where they are taken for treatment.

But take a decision that's as personal as childbirth. Depending which hospital a woman chooses, the price could be as high as Centennial Hills Hospital's $28,000 or as low as University Medical Center's $17,000.

Until recently, Brian Brannman led University Medical Center, Clark County's only public hospital. He says it is difficult for any patient to make sense of the varying costs.

"You can't. We've created a system that is just so convoluted, you don't know," Brannman said.

As a public hospital, UMC has to reveal its price list called a "charge master."

The I-Team's attempts to get similar price lists from Las Vegas' private hospitals were declined or simply ignored.

"You can have a competitive disadvantage," said Joseph Greenway with Center for Health Information Analysis.

He is running what could be called an underground website. His database reports on nearly every hospital bill. The database takes the average bill for almost any procedure you can imagine and reveals what hospitals are charging patients and their insurance.

Hospital Website Allows Consumers to Compare Costs

Greenway's hard work has been there for years, but with little public awareness. The database has been virtually hidden on the web, until now.

"If I were to look at a bill of something going on at a hospital, it just seems outlandish. In support of the hospitals, a good hospital makes about 1 percent profit. They're not making a lot of money," Greenway said.

So, who is making the money?

"We've been trying to track that down and I ask that question all the time," he said.

In the debate over the Affordable Care Act, opponents said government intervention is the key factor in rising costs. However, Brannman doesn't see that as being true of his experience at UMC.

"You talk about, you don't want to have a federal bureaucrat making health care decisions for you. We've sort of forgotten or we don't understand, we have people who are essentially bureaucrats of the insurance companies who are making those decisions for us every day. They're walking my halls. They're case managers. They're people calling to pre-approve whether you get a procedure done. Those are people who are working for a for-profit entity. Who knows what they make?" Brannman said.

Ellen Aliberti founded the Case Managers Association of Las Vegas.

"We are helping patients make good decisions for their care delivery, with giving them all the information. We're not about death camps, were not about keeping benefits and care from patients. But we are guiding them to things that make sense because patients can't have anything they want, but patients absolutely need what they need," she said.

8 News NOW has taken data from the UNLV database so common surgeries and procedures can be more easily searched.

The private hospital that comes in with the lowest price most often for common procedures is St. Rose Sienna. The private hospital that comes in with the highest price most often is Valley Hospital.

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