Since the start of the new year, Aspen Valley Hospital has been sharing its complete price list, containing more than 12,000 items, on its website, aspenvalleyhospital.org.
The online posting of what is known in the healthcare field as a “chargemaster” complies with a new federal law that went into effect Jan. 1, AVH president and CEO Dave Ressler said. The regulation requiring all U.S. hospitals to share their chargemasters with the public, created by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, is designed to bring more transparency to the medical industry.
Ressler, the featured speaker at the Aspen Business Luncheon on Wednesday, said the prices may not reflect all the costs involved in a hospital inpatient or outpatient service. The listed prices don’t include the cost of operating-room minutes, for example, or fees for pre- and post-surgery physician examinations or an anesthesiologist’s time.
The hospital also may have to administer medications that aren’t necessarily included in the basic rate for a particular service, Ressler said.
“No one knows what you’re going to need until you get there,” Ressler said. “There’s so much that goes into determining what your surgery’s going to cost that you don’t know, going in, what you’re going to end up paying.”
Potential patients can research the chargemasters at AVH and other hospitals, but with tens of thousands of items on the list, plus all the other aforementioned variables, trying to compare the cost of a service can be extremely tough, he said. While Aspen’s hospital has more than 12,000 items listed, bigger hospitals have two or three times as many entries for service costs.
What makes comparison health care shopping an even more difficult proposition is the fact that hospitals code and term their services differently. Ressler said he asked the AVH corporate compliance officer to research prices at other hospitals for a comparison, and the task proved “almost impossible.”
“He couldn’t,” Ressler said. “He spent several days trying. He said, ‘I can’t match things up.’ It was almost impossible to say where we compared.”
The entire spreadsheet is available at the following link: aspenvalleyhospital.org/Charge-Description-Master. Also on its website, Aspen Valley Hospital has a link to a short price list of common inpatient and outpatient services, including hip replacement, cesarean section, laboratory blood work, physical therapy and more.
Ressler said to help customers in deciding their service options, the hospital has a cost estimation team that can provide “an average cost” based on the last several bills for the same surgery. The phone number to reach a member of that team is (970) 544-1461.
And to help customers who are underinsured or uninsured to understand their payment obligations, AVH has financial counselors who can assist by phone. That number is (970) 544-1412.
Ressler suggested that those who simply use the online chargemaster to figure out the cost of services will be mired “in a swamp of information where it’s very difficult to discern what you’re going to pay.”
In recent days, health care providers nationwide have been advising that individuals in need of surgery or other services also check with their insurers to determine out-of-pocket costs based on hospital charges for specific services.
Ressler called hospitals “the most expensive place you can have anything done, whether it’s getting aspirin or having an imaging study.”
But there are reasons for that high expense, he said. Hospitals have to run a 24/7 operation.
“It’s not that we’re greedy,” Ressler said. “We have to pay for very expensive equipment and staff, and we have to be available at any time.”
The AVH board of directors, some two decades ago, decided it needed to come up with some lower-cost alternatives, he said. One result was the creation of what’s being called the hospital’s “midvalley campus” near Willits.
Located at 1450 E. Valley Road off Highway 82, the campus is the home of AVH’s Midvalley Medical Center and Midvalley Health Institute.
At some point later this year, the hospital plans to move its After Hours Medical Clinic on Cody Lane in Basalt to the midvalley campus. For now, the after-hours clinic will do business at the same site, with weekday hours from 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. and weekend hours from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
As for the midvalley campus, Ressler said it can handle many of the same outpatient surgeries and procedures that are conducted at the Aspen hospital at a much cheaper rate — sometimes at half the price.
“We can price it much lower than the hospital because we don’t have to maintain a 24/7 operation,” he said. “It never mattered that much to people before. Now it matters a lot.”
Ressler said one of the hospital’s goals for 2019 is to make the public more aware of its midvalley campus and its offerings, which include surgeries and imaging services. Better signage will be part of that effort, he said.
AVH’s midvalley imaging center, for example, can provide a basic MRI for $1,000, which is a low-cost alternative to having an MRI done at the hospital.
“There are still some [reasons why] you may have to go to a hospital to have your MRI,” he said. “But it’s our way of trying to keep services to the consumer affordable and an option to consider.
“We try to steer people to where they will best be served.”