HHS releases outpatient costs data

New dataset highlights stark range in procedure charges
By Erin McCann
12:00 AM

In efforts to spur more transparency in the realm of healthcare costs, which many say have far too long remained shrouded in mystery, the Department of Health and Human Services has released cost data for 30 hospital outpatient procedures.
At the June 3 kickoff of the Health Datapalooza IV -- an annual national conference on health data transparency joining together the government, nonprofit and private sectors to explore the potential for open data -- HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced the release of new Medicare outpatient procedure cost and utilization numbers, in addition to Medicare chronic conditions data. The datasets come on the heels of HHS releasing 100 inpatient procedure costs just this May.
"We've gone from what Todd Park would to refer to as 'lazy data', which just sat in a file room somewhere, into active data, that is now informing the marketplace," Sebelius said at Datapalooza.
The outpatient procedures include hospital clinic visits, cardiac imaging, endoscopies and echocardiograms, among others. The new data highlights the striking range of costs for identical outpatient procedure.
For instance, in Los Angeles, the charges for an echocardiogram range from $962 to a whopping $5,800. When examining these numbers nationwide, the figures are even more alarming, ranging from $410 in Amarillo, Texas, to $11,451 in Philadelphia.
How about the price of an MRI? That could cost you from $474 at the Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center in Bronx, N.Y., to more than $13,000 a pop at Underwood Memorial Hospital in Woodbury, N.J.
If you're shopping around in Boston, why go to Massachusetts General Hospital for close to a $4,000 MRI when you could hop on the Subway to Tufts Medical Center and pay 65 percent less at $1,375?
"We're a great believer that unlocking that data (and) turning it over to those who know how to formulate that data for policymakers and providers is the best possible thing to do," Sebelius added.
Jonathan Bush, chief executive officer of athenahealth, acknowledged the progress the administration has made in terms of data, but also highlighted - animatedly so - that there's still reams of data that needs to be liberated.
"Thank you, Secretary, for releasing 30 of 30 million things you need to release," he remarked in his June 3 keynote address.
Paid claims data is what Bush would like to see in the near future.
"We look at their surgeries and their infections and we can't look at the rest of their cost picture," he said. "We have plenty of information to embarrass them. We just don't have any information to save them any money."
The audience erupted in cheers.
National Coordinator for Health IT Farzad Mostashari, MD, applauded HHS' move. "People don't just want their data. They want to do something with that data," he remarked in one of his session introductions.
"A more data driven and transparent health care marketplace can help consumers and their families make important decisions about their care," said Sebelius, in a prepared statement.