Sunday, February 13, 2011

Cost-awareness anecdote: Getting an estimate

The following story is from Monte Jaffe, an accountant and patient from Massachusetts.

A couple of years ago my primary care physician suggested that I have a colonoscopy at the age of 47. My father died from Hodgkin’s disease at 34 and my mom survived breast cancer in her 40’s. I suffer from irritable bowel syndrome so she suggested that I have my colon checked out just in case. She recommended a very experienced gastroenterologist at a major Boston hospital.

My insurance would not cover the procedure because I am younger than 50, so I called the hospital to investigate how much it would cost me to have the procedure. Their first answer was that they did not know because no one had ever called in with that question before. This is a hospital which probably does more than one thousand of these every year.

I was transferred to someone else who was more helpful. She said it would depend quite a bit on what they discovered while I was undergoing the colonoscopy, but gave me a range of $2,000 to $4,500. I asked if there would be other charges and she said that the physician screening could cost $770 or more.

I asked if there were other charges. She then mentioned that there would be a fee for an anesthesiologist, but they didn’t know how much that would be. I asked whether I should call that office, but they said that they use several different anesthesiologists and there is no way in advance for them to know which one will be there for the procedure. Finally, they mentioned that there may be several other charges as well. I asked for something in writing about the various charges, but she said they did not have anything like that.

That’s the point where I gave up. We were already potentially over $5,000 and it was going to take some time to figure out an estimate for the anesthesiologist. Also, I had no confidence that we had gotten to the bottom of all of the potential charges. I was not going to get an estimate before agreeing to do this procedure.

I liken this experience to hiring a general contractor for a recent major home improvement. I received three estimates from three different general contractors which included all of the costs including the electrician, masonry, disposal, painting, etc. Sometimes there are unexpected costs with construction, and sometimes there are unexpected costs with colonoscopies. However, the inability of our medical system to even identify all of the costs, or to even appreciate that this is an important element to making the decision, was emblematic to me of a much deeper problem.

I will celebrate my 50th birthday in less than 2 months and will let the insurance company sort this all out while I focus on the procedure.