Last summer, I had one of those "$400 emergencies," except in my case it could have been a four-figure emergency, and a potentially life-threatening one to boot. A primary care physician found a lump and sent me to a specialist, who sent me to a cancer specialist, who thought I might have a tumor. "You need an MRI," he told me.
My immediate reaction wasn't just to worry about a malignancy. I also worried about the bills.
Living in a big city with small children, my husband and I work hard to pay for the costs of daily life while also saving enough for retirement, college and the unknown. We're acutely aware that one of the biggest bombs that can get thrown into your budget these days is a medical bill.
Even with a family health insurance plan for which we pay a steep premium each month, we know we're only partially protected. That's because, like increasing numbers of Americans, we have an even steeper annual deductible to cover before coverage kicks in, plus coinsurance and copays.
So I set out to get a better deal. I found out what the MRI I needed would cost me at the hospital to which the cancer specialist referred me, and then I did some research, found cheaper alternatives and booked the scan at one of those instead.
It may sound straightforward — what's more American than shopping around? — but almost no one does it, new research from the National Bureau of Economic Research finds: "Despite significant out-of-pocket cost exposure, patients often received care in high-priced locations when lower priced options were available. Fewer than 1 percent of individuals used a price transparency tool to search for the price of their services in advance of care."