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Bitter lesson for health care consumers: shop for a lab!

June 6, 2008

If you have autoimmune disease and are under the competent care of an endocrinologist or rheumatologist, you are accustomed to having a lab in your life. I was diagnosed with Addison’s disease last October, and am just getting the drill down. Until yesterday, it had not actually occurred to me to compare prices for laboratory services. Big mistake.

I have praised their efficiency, but Labcorp has made my Friends Don’t Let Friends List.

Lab costs are largely my responsibility, since my insurer has a new weird formula for covering (actually not covering very much of) lab costs, leaving the brunt of the cost on me until my out-of-pocket expense has emptied my pocket.

Once your immune system has cannibalized one necessary life function, the vigil is ever on to detect and defend your rogue immune system’s next target. My endocrinologist ordered a reasonable battery of endocrine and metabolic tests. I went to efficient, convenient Labcorp. Never again.

I was nonplussed when the insurer’s Statement of Benefits arrived: $1,550 for the blood panels. After the insurance write-off from this amount, I will be responsible for almost $1,300. Again, this was for a single venipuncture and a computer analysis of, admittedly, a lot of blood variables. An MRI would have cost only a few hundred dollars more, complete with a radiologist’s interpretation.

Labcorp is a preferred provider on my health plan, and my carrier did not consider the cost inordinate. I don’t happen to share my insurer’s extravagant tastes.

I called a local hospital lab, and a very helpful woman there took down every single variable from my four-page report, conferred with her billing department, and called me back with the cost they would have billed my carrier: $653. I would have been responsible for less than $400–a $900 difference between labs for exactly the same analysis.

It’s bitter that people with compromised energy, who may find it draining to call around for anything at all, have the added burden of price-shopping routine services from ancillary providers. But it’s a burden shelling out an unnecessary $900, too.

I’m simply relaying my own experience, which I chalk up to erroneous presumptions. I had assumed that Labcorp would be scrappy and competitive; they’re not–they’re extremely overpriced. I had assumed basic market equity where various corporate factors tug prices different ways. The hospital lab simply treats my insurer better than Labcorp does, probably because the hospital has a high-volume advantage. And that benefits me.

If you are responsible for the lion’s share of your lab costs, make the effort to call around. If a lab is unwilling to take down your information and give you an actual quote, call another lab. Ultimately, a consumer-powered economy serves us far better than a government-regulated one.

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3 Comments
  1. Laura permalink
    June 6, 2008 3:38 pm

    Thank you for passing along the experience, but suffice it to say we feel your pain. :( So sorry you got ripped off.

  2. June 7, 2008 10:00 am

    To help consumers find the best value for routine health care services (services like MRIs, lab tests, x-rays, mammograms, office visits, dental and vision), I created a search engine called http://www.outofpocket.com. The site invites consumers to post/share prices paid for actual visits, to share with other consumers. The site also includes some good tips on how to make the most out of health care dollars. Check it out an let me know if you find this site helpful.

    Best,
    Mona Lori
    co-founder
    http://www.outofpocket.com

  3. June 7, 2008 10:52 am

    I’m sorry, Mona Lori, but I did not find the site helpful. I did only a cursory look, but a search in your search box for “lab costs” and my zip code turned up no results. I looked at your blog and read a post about negotiating costs with doctors and hospitals. This is possible for cash payers, who are typically people who are too poor or too negligent to purchase insurance. However, in the new Corporate Medicine America, most of us have health plans that have done the negotiating for us. And most of us have doctors and hospitals who have no say in what they charge for services–it’s all done through the corporation that employs them. This is nothing new; it’s been going on since I took Law and Medicine in law school in the early 1990s. I had the advantage of previewing the nightmare I am now living.

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