Semro column: Comparing MRI, CT scan costs in our region
What does an MRI or CT scan cost in Colorado? Well, that depends on the kind of test you have, the cost of the hardware and most importantly where you have it done. And that last part is what’s really interesting.
MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging. An MRI machine uses magnetic fields and radio waves in order to produce a detailed image of bones and soft tissue. Low-field MRI machines can vary in price from $150,000 to $1.2 million. A 3 Tesla MRI whole body machine can cost $3 million. A maintenance agreement can range from $2,000 a month for a small permanent magnet MRI to over $10,000 per month for a 3 Tesla system.
CT is the abbreviation for computed tomography. A CT scanner is a computer assisted X-ray system that can provide images of internal organs that show far more detail than a traditional X-ray. CT scanners can range in price from $65,000 for a refurbished machine to as high as $2.5 million for a new one. Service contracts for CT scanners can range from $40,000 a year for a GE 4-8 slice scanner to a high of $100,000 per year for a Siemens 10-64 slice system.
Bottom line, these are expensive machines that cost a lot of money to buy, maintain and service. The more expensive and complex the hardware, the more the imaging is likely to cost. Obviously, another major factor driving costs is the number of scans performed by a facility in any given year.
Some scan types cost more than others. Charges are lower for Medicare and Medicaid. However, the severity of illness and the number of additional complications probably won’t increase the cost of an individual scan.
So, that brings us to how costs for these scans can vary based upon where you get them. When you look at average charge data across multiple providers, you’ll see that the cost of a scan can vary substantially depending on where it’s done. And not too surprisingly, those charges tend to be higher in rural areas.
The average pricing data that I’m using for this comparison comes from the Center for Improving Value in Health Care’s, All Payer Claims Database (APCD). This data is from 2017 and is calculated from actual charges for that year by each hospital or service provider.
Please note that this data is a couple of years old and may not reflect the current cost of a CT scan or MRI in 2019. But it does show how just how variable and unexplainable this pricing system is.
Using 2017 APCD data for multiple providers across Colorado, the average charge for an abdominal/pelvic CT scan with contrast (CPT code 74177) ranged from a low of $290 at Boulder Foothills Community Hospital, to a high of $5,150 at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs. The average charge for that same scan varied from $3,020 at Grand River in Rife, to $2,530 at St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction and $2,520 at Aspen Valley Hospital. Compare that to an average charge for the same scan of $500 at Poudre Valley Hospital in Ft. Collins, $480 at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Denver, and $420 at Penrad Imaging in Colorado Springs.
The average charge for an MRI of the lower spine (CPT code 72148) ranged from $4,260 at Colorado Plains Medical Center in Ft. Morgan, to $2,840 at Aspen Valley and $1,950 at St. Mary’s. Compare that to $630 at Poudre Valley, $270 at Penrad Imaging and $220 at Health Images at South Potomac in Aurora.
A CT scan of the head or brain (CPT code 70450) varied from $2,250 at Valley View to $1,750 at Aspen Valley and $1,630 at Grand River. Compare that to $410 at Yuma District Hospital on the east slope, $310 at St. Anthony’s, $240 at Boulder Foothills, and $160 at UC Health Medical Group in Loveland.
Finally, the average charge in 2017 for an MRI scan of a leg joint (CPT code 73721) ranged from $4,690 at Colorado Plains Medical Center in Ft. Morgan, to $3,520 at Valley View, $2,980 at Aspen Valley and $2,200 at St. Mary’s. Compare that to $510 at St. Anthony’s, $390 at UC Health Medical Group in Loveland and $280 at Health Images of South Denver.
Once again, this is old data. But it’s the latest comparative data out there. Charges might be lower or higher now. For Glenwood readers it doesn’t include charges for Compass Peak Imaging since it wasn’t in business back then. And when I looked at the current Valley View Hospital chargemaster for CT and MRI scans in 2019, prices were set at $995 for every type of scan. I have no idea if that information is accurate since prices differed by scan type in the past.
In the end, we need more price transparency that’s easier to understand and an explanation for how these charges could have varied so wildly.
Bob Semro of Glenwood Springs is a former health policy analyst for the Bell Policy Center, and a legislative and senior advocate. His column appears monthly in the Post Independent and at postindependent.com
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This will be my 500th column — my final column in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.