New study shows wide range of prices for health care procedures

WASHINGTON — There is new proof that health care prices are all over the map.

Castlight Health, a health care technology company, analyzed medical claims data and found widespread price gaps for eight common procedures, ranging from CT scans to simple blood work.

“This is a finding that consumers need to be aware of,” said Kristin Torres Mowat, Castlight’s vice president of strategic alliances and data operations.

In the D.C. region, the cost of a head/brain CT scan ranged from $78 to $1,673. The average cost of the scan is $592, the lowest among the 30 cities surveyed.

The Castlight Health Costliest Cities Index also found a wide price range locally for basic blood work, preventive visits to primary care physicians and MRIs.

An MRI of the lower back costs anywhere from $460 to $3,026. The price range fluctuation was less, but still significant, for basic blood work and preventive office visits. Locally, lipid panels cost $15 to $190; the price for a physical exam could be anywhere between $99 and $265.

Looking at health care for women, Castlight stats show the D.C. area is the nation’s fifth-most expensive for a mammogram. Conversely, it’s the least expensive in the index for a follow-up office visit with an OB/GYN.

A lack of transparency is a big reason for price variation. Most times, the costs of medical procedures aren’t known until bills arrive, so consumers could potentially pay too much. Some say it isn’t a problem since insurance companies pick up the bill.

But Torres Mowat says the higher medical costs are reflected in higher insurance premiums, which are ultimately paid by consumers and employers who provide coverage.

“That affects us all,” said Torres Mowat.

When premiums increase, many of the companies that turn to Castlight for technical advice might be forced to reduce other forms of compensation for employees. That can affect a company’s ability to expand operations and create jobs, Torres Mowat said.

Bottom line: Consumers should treat health care like other purchases. It’s fine to compare prices and ask for estimates before buying.

“Many people would cross the city to save money on you name it — apparel, a car,” said Torres Mowat, “so why wouldn’t you do that for health care?”

Will Vitka

William Vitka is a Digital Editor and reporter for He's been in the news industry for over a decade. Before joining WTOP, he worked for CBS News, Stuff Magazine, The New York Post and wrote a variety of books—about a dozen of them, with more to come.

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