What I Learned from Shopping for an MRI

mri
Image credit: gehealthcare.com

My wife is a runner and recently improved her running form to avoid injury. Unfortunately, forefoot strikes were new for her feet, and she was going too fast and too far for her anatomy to respond appropriately. During runs, she began having forefoot pain, which progressed to hurt even with walking. This is a classic story for a stress fracture, and her workup led to an MRI.

Knowing of massive price variations in healthcare markets, I suggested she call around to shop for the best price. Here’s what she found:

Option A (20 minutes away): $500 self-pay, $850 with insurance

Option B (40 minutes away): $640 self-pay, $920 with insurance

Option C (40 minutes away): $400 self-pay,

Option D (40 minutes away): $400 self-pay,

Option E (20 minutes away): $675 self-pay,

Option F (20 minutes away): $1,480 self-pay, $560 with insurance

After Option B, she stopped writing down prices with insurance because they were always at least a few hundred dollars more than the self-pay price.

The two best options, C or D, were the same price and distance away, so how about comparing quality? Both had nice websites that talked about how well-trained their radiologists are and how great their MRI machines are, but there were no actual details that could help me determine which would be better quality. So we ultimately chose Option C because the person on the phone was the nicest.

What’s with Option F? It was the only hospital-based option we contacted, and it’s part of the same company as my insurance. I guess they give a massive discount for having their insurance. Their self-pay price is typical of what I have come to expect from hospital-based services–always crazy expensive.

The thing I learned from this experience is that, when you self-pay, that means you aren’t running the money you’re spending through insurance, so the $400 we spent on the MRI doesn’t even count toward our annual deductible! Therefore, price-conscious healthcare shoppers who self-pay are getting a short-term deal but may be subject to more than their annual out-of-pocket max if something big comes up later on.

Our insurer wouldn’t even let us submit our receipt after the fact to count that $400 toward our deductible, which makes sense from their perspective. They don’t want us self-paying potentially higher prices than they have contracted for things because it could use up our deductible faster than it would have otherwise, which would mean they’re on the hook for covering more of our costs of care than their actuaries had planned. You’d think they’d at least add a clause to their policies that says that if patients find a lower price than the insurer was able to negotiate, they will accept that self-paid amount as counting toward their deductible. But in a poorly functioning insurance market, insurers are never forced to put in the effort to make reasonable policies like that.

Fortunately the MRI was negative!

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