PriceCheck: It Pays To Shop Around For MRIs In Florida

Jun 23, 2016

When it comes to health care in Florida, it pays to shop around.

The cost of a common MRI can vary by thousands of dollars depending on where you go to get it.

Just ask Matthew Rigg.  A career in financial planning taught the Miami Beach resident to comparison shop. So when his doctor ordered two shoulder MRIs, he set out to find the best deal. 

The retiree's first call was to the imaging center near his house.

“Why don’t you give me a quote for an MRI with and without contrast and then I’ll have an idea of how much you are compared to other people," he recalled. "And they said, ‘We don’t give out that information.’” 

He got roughly the same answer from a nearby hospital.

“And again, I said, 'It’s a shoulder MRI. How much do you charge for the different shoulder MRIs that you give?' And they said, ‘We don’t know. It varies,’” he said.

Rigg finally gave up and chose the imaging center closest to his home. Since he has Medicare, he paid roughly $130 for each shoulder.

He said the money wasn't an issue. It was the experience of asking for prices that left him extremely frustrated. 

“It bugs me when I can’t find what’s most efficient for me,” Rigg said.

He's not alone in his frustration. 

That's why Health News Florida is working to take the frustration out of the process with our new PriceCheck project. It compares the price of common medical procedures and lets consumers share their costs. 

For example, a PriceCheck look at MRIs of the lower back in Tampa Bay and South Florida found the procedure can run anywhere from $250 to more than $3,000.

The charges defy logic, said Kristin Torres Mowat, a senior vice president with Castlight, a company that looks at millions of patient claims a year. 

“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of rhyme or reason across cities – large, small, north, south, east, west, whatnot – between the variation and the prices that we see for the same service across the country,” she said.

There's a similar PriceCheck project in California and it shows Florida is far from the worst when it comes to MRI prices. In California, lower back MRIs can cost more than eight times the Florida average.  

That means a California resident could buy a plane ticket to Florida, stay in a hotel room on the beach, get an MRI and still be ahead.

Mowat said geography and cost of living can play a part in health care prices. Or it can depend on whether the facility is independent or it is affiliated with a large heath system or hospital.

What remains constant, Mowat said, is that patients are typically left in the dark until the bill arrives.

“Today health care works unlike any other aspect of the economy where we consume the service and after the fact we’re told what it costs us,” she said.

The Florida PriceCheck data also shows that many times the costs vary widely within the same city blocks.

For example, a patient without insurance who gets an MRI of the lower back at Tampa General Hospital will pay about $1,000. Had that patient driven 30 minutes north to Medical Arts Comprehensive imaging center, he would have paid a quarter of that cost. 

Dr. Geraldine McGinty, vice chair of the American College of Radiology Board of Chancellors, siad it’s fair for patients to expect an estimate of what their out-of-pocket charge will be, but they should also be concerned with quality of care and access to their records.

Patients are leading the charge in demanding this up-front pricing, she said.

“Were seeing a new voice in this discussion, which is our patients, who are understanding that this is information that is very meaningful to them,” McGinty said. “So I assume that we’ll see some pressure coming from our patients and appropriately so.”

Rigg, the Miami Beach retiree, said he is ready to take it to the next level. He's talking about getting involved in changing state laws.

“If you want to have a fair free market there have to be regulations in place that require full disclosure,” he said.

And he hopes more patients like him get involved.

Do your part to make health care prices more transparent by sharing your information at PriceCheck.

Julio Ochoa reports for WUSF in Tampa. WUSF is part of Health News Florida, which receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.