Health care hotline claims to cut costs It allows patients to comparison shop

September 30, 1993|By Wayne Hardin | Wayne Hardin,Staff Writer

Dial a prayer, dial the sports scores, dial a sex message. Now, dial-some-medical-fees.

Concerned health care consumers can now compare the costs of medical procedures in Baltimore and nationwide for $3.95 for the first minute and $1.95 a minute after, thanks to the new Health Care Cost Hotline. Average call length is 2 minutes.

Users can dial the 900 hot line, follow prompts and find out, for instance, that in metropolitan Baltimore:

The median fee for a tooth crown (porcelain with base metal) is $515; for rhinoplasty (nose reconstruction), it's $3,391; for mammography (bilateral), $136; having a baby (complete obstetric care and vaginal delivery), $2,717; prostate surgery (partial removal), $2,120; coronary bypass (three grafts), $6,135; face lift, $4,869; gallbladder removal, $2,412.

For each procedure, the voice responder also gives the range of fees in the requested ZIP code. That gallbladder surgery in Baltimore (code 5045) could be as low at $1,845 or as high as $3,014.

"I'm the inventor of the hot line," says Sandy Taube, a senior consultant with Milliman & Robertson, a national health benefits consulting company, at its New York office. The hot line is a joint project between that firm and Medicode Inc., a Salt Lake City-based company that reviews and analyzes 2 million to 3 million health claims a month and produces data bases for clients.

"The idea came about after one of my children had to undergo a procedure and my insurance with a former employer wasn't great," recalled Mr. Taube. "I had to pay a lot of money out of pocket. I said, 'There's got to be a better way of doing this.' If I had known ahead of time how much the procedure would cost me, I could have negotiated with the doctor or maybe sought another physician."

Mr. Taube says the hot line, which took five months to set up, gives consumers information that can help them negotiate prices with a health care provider -- or show them they might want to go elsewhere for cost-conscious treatment. It also could be used to determine costs of procedures not covered by insurance, such as cosmetic surgery, he says.

Shannon Michael, manager of public relations for Medicode, says the firm will monitor and update fees quarterly.

Baltimore falls in the middle among 16 metropolitan areas cited in the present hot line chart of fees for selected procedures, neither the most nor least expensive.

The cheapest place for a tooth crown and a mammography is St. Louis. For economical rhinoplasty, psychotherapy and knee surgery, check Denver. Get your heart bypass, gallbladder removal and face lift in Portland, Ore. Have your prostate surgery in San Diego and your baby in Cleveland.

Avoid New York City at all costs (high). New York ranked at the top in each charted category, except psychotherapy, where Miami led the list.

For a free hot line code book, which explains how to use the hot line, call (800) 383-3434; or write P.O. Box 69352, Portland, Ore. 97201.

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