Finding out the cost of lab tests is a real challenge for patients

In the spring of 2005, the sinus infection returned. I awoke severely congested with a pounding forehead and pain around my eyes that grew worse when I bent to tie my shoes. The feeling was familiar. Two years earlier, I had similar symptoms, but was uninsured and endured a miserable week with nothing but over-the-counter medication. Now they were back.

Fortunately, when I started graduate school, my father insisted that I have health insurance. As a healthy 24 year old, I didn’t see the need, but he agreed to foot the bill for a high-deductible insurance policy to cover me in the event of catastrophic illness. Except for four physician office visits subject only to a $35 co-payment, my policy offered no benefits until I spent $3,000 out of my own pocket. With my sinuses throbbing, I knew I needed to use one of those visits. Overwhelmed by the list of “in-network” providers on the insurer’s website, I picked an internist based on convenience—his practice was located in a medical complex near my home.

Arriving for my appointment, I checked in and presented my insurance card to the receptionist. “Your visit today will be $35,” said the woman behind the desk. I was relieved to hear that my coverage was working as promised. A nurse ushered me to an exam room, where the physician promptly entered, half-heartedly listened to my complaint, and confidently asserted that I did not have a sinus infection because I had no fever. I wanted to say “Really? Mind handing me a tissue so that I can show you what’s been coming out of my head?” but resisted the urge. Instead, I clarified that fever or no, I didn’t feel well, and believed my sinuses were the culprit. At this, the internist lost patience. He ordered some lab work and a sinus CT scan to rule out infection, and said that I could have everything done downstairs.

Despite my $35 office visit, I knew my insurance wouldn’t cover anything else until I met my deductible, so I needed to find out the cost of the CT scan. Doing so was much more difficult than I expected. Admissions didn’t know the cost, so they called the imaging department. Imaging had no idea, and threw it back to admissions where, after much searching, a big black binder full of prices was located in a cabinet, alongside packets of coffee creamer, some paper clips, and a couple of dried up ink pens. The sinus CT would cost roughly $900, which I could not afford. I headed instead to the lab to get my blood drawn, not knowing that I was about to make a costly mistake.

I worked as a phlebotomist during college, so I knew that lab tests were expensive, but that most insurers negotiated discounted rates that were only a fraction of the sticker price. Besides, the lab work was routine—a comprehensive metabolic panel and complete blood count—so I didn’t think to ask how much it would cost. My mistake was assuming that the lab was in-network, because the in-network internist I had just seen worked in the same building and referred me to the lab.

A month later, the bad news came in the mail. The lab was out-of-network, and I owed $478. While this wasn’t the five-figure medical bill many families face, everything is relative. For me, a graduate student living almost entirely on borrowed money, the bill changed how I bought groceries, socialized with friends, and commuted to school. For six months, I fought to scrape together enough money to make monthly payments. The experience, while costly, taught me a lot about our fragmented health care system, how little patients or providers know about the real cost of health care, and how hard it is for patients to make price-based decisions when the system isn’t designed with that in mind.

I had learned my lesson. Later, when a dermatologist put me on medication requiring monthly blood tests, I took out the yellow pages, looked up laboratories, and dialed the phone. “I’m uninsured,” I said (not far from the truth given my coverage) “and I need to have a lipid panel and a liver function test. How much will this cost?” Some labs knew, and some labs didn’t, and the answers varied widely. Needless to say, I chose the least expensive option. Making the decision was easy, getting the information on which to base the decision was—and is—the real challenge.

Brad Wright is a health policy doctoral student who blogs at Wright on Health.

On Labor Day Costs of Care, a Boston-based nonprofit, offered $1000 prizes for the best anecdotes from doctors and patients that illustrate the importance of cost-awareness in medicine. Two months later we received 115 submissions from all over the country – New York to California, Texas to North Dakota, Alaska to Oklahoma. We feel these stories are poignant because they put a face on some of the known shortcomings of our system, but also because they unveil how commonplace and pervasive these types of stories are. To learn more about the contest and read more of our stories please visit www.CostsOfCare.org (Twitter: @CostsOfCare).

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