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Data released on disparity in hospital charges

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration Wednesday revealed what more than 3,000 hospitals charge for common medical procedures in an early effort to challenge health care costs by showing consumers how prices for the same service can vary by tens of thousands of dollars.

The most extensive release of hospital rates to date showed dramatic variations between hospitals in the same town. In Denver, for instance, treatment for heart failure ranges from $21,000 to $46,000, according to the data on services used in the 100 common hospital stays covered by the Medicare program for the elderly and disabled.

"When consumers easily compare the prices of goods and services . . . [providers] have strong incentives to keep those prices low," said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

"But even basic information about health premiums and hospital charges has long been hidden from consumers," she told reporters. "These rates can vary dramatically in ways that can't be easily explained."

Many consumers still lack the information needed to make as informed a decision about medical care as they do when choosing a new car.

The mountain of data is not easy to navigate, nor is it matched with quality ratings that would show whether a lower-priced hospital delivers care comparable to its more expensive neighbor.

"The administration is doing something here that's fairly meaningless, just to show that they're doing something," said Paul Ginsburg, who heads the Washington-based Center for Studying Health System Change, a nonpartisan research group.

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Government officials said they would eventually make software tools available to help Americans use the data.

The American Hospital Association said the list of charges are no longer relevant based on how facilities are actually reimbursed for care. -- Reuters

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