By Margot Sanger-Katz
It’s one of the most common tests in medicine, and it is performed millions of times a year around the country. Should a metabolic blood panel test cost $11 or $952?
Both of these are real, negotiated prices, paid by health insurance companies to laboratories in Jackson, Miss., and El Paso in 2016. New data, analyzing the health insurance claims of 34 million Americans covered by large commercial insurance companies, shows that enormous swings in price for identical services are common in health care. In just one market — Tampa, Fla. — the most expensive blood test costs 40 times as much as the least expensive one.
If you’re a patient seeking a metabolic blood panel, good luck finding out what it will cost. Although hospitals are now required to publish a list of the prices they would like patients to pay for their services, the amounts that medical providers actually agree to accept from insurance companies tend to remain closely held secrets. Some insurance companies provide consumers with tools to help steer them away from the $450 test, but in many cases you won’t know the price your insurance company agreed to until you get the bill. If you have an insurance deductible, a $400 — or even a $200 — bill for a blood test can be an unpleasant surprise.