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The High Cost of Emergency Room Care

With the re-launch of the federal healthcare.gov website, millions of Americans are now able to sign up for health insurance required under the Affordable Care Act. The federal website and its state-run counterparts are making it easier for people to search for health insurance and subsidies are making insurance premiums more affordable.

However, increasing access to health insurance—and therefore health care—addresses only part of the problem with our health care system. A huge challenge still to be tackled is the high and rising cost of care, most recently documented by the New York Times.

The Times ran an article earlier this week on the astounding prices that hospitals charge for minor procedures in the emergency room, such as more than $2,000 for three stitches. Patients treated at hospitals from California to Michigan to New York report exorbitant emergency room fees that seemingly have no correlation to the amount or complexity of care. Though hospitals often don’t collect for the full amount they charge to insured patients, due to discounts negotiated by insurers, uninsured patients may be on the hook for the full amount.

High emergency room charges are most pronounced on the West Coast, with the Times article highlighting the high fees charged at several San Francisco Bay-area hospitals in particular. That’s the same region that our 2012 report, Your Price May Vary, identified as being the most expensive in California for a number of scheduled, inpatient procedures.

Our report also identified some of the least expensive regions in California for inpatient hospital care. In the most expensive regions, hospitals charged 2.7 times as much as hospitals in the lowest priced regions. With no clear difference in the quality of care, patient health, or cost of living to explain the regional variation in prices, the ability of some hospitals to charge less for care may offer insights into how to begin to address the high cost of health care.