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How to save money on health care

By Elizabeth Cohen, CNN Senior Medical Correspondent
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Is cheaper care better care?
  • If you have insurance, don't think your insurance company picks up the whole tab
  • Benefits departments, especially at large employers, can sometimes help compare costs
  • Call hospitals and doctors offices and ask what they'll charge for a procedure
  • Costs for same procedure can vary widely depending on institution

(CNN) -- When Heather Staples' 6-year-old daughter, Sophia, fell and cut her eyebrow, Staples knew her daughter might need stitches. But instead of running straight to an emergency room, Staples took a few minutes to compare prices at nearby emergency rooms.

"I have a high-deductible plan, so I knew that I would be paying for the charges out of [my own] pocket completely," Staples says. "Price was definitely a concern of mine."

Using a New Hampshire state Web site, she realized the closest emergency room would cost $500 more than an emergency room 20 minutes away. Since Sophia wasn't in immediate danger, Staples made the drive, spending $1,200 instead of $1,700 to treat her daughter.

Staples knows a little something about bargain shopping. She helps large employers in her state purchase insurance. As health care costs continue to skyrocket, it behooves all of us to follow her lead.

Studies in various states have shown wildly different prices for the same procedure.

Live in southern New Hampshire and you're having laparoscopic knee surgery? You could go to Dartmouth South and pay about $5,300 or to St. Joseph's Hospital and pay about $10,500.

If you're having a colonoscopy, you could go to Southern New Hampshire Medical Center and pay nearly $5,000 or to Concord Ambulatory Surgery Center and pay about $2,800.

If you're having surgery to repair a hernia, you could go to St. Joseph's Hospital and pay about $13,400 or to Elliot Hospital and pay about $4,500.

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These are prices for people without insurance, but even people with insurance will see very different prices for the same procedure at different facilities.

Americans are spending more and more money out of their own pockets for medical care. If you have insurance, don't make the mistake of thinking your insurance company picks up the whole tab.

According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, consumer out-of-pocket spending has gone up from $682 to $912 per person from 2002 to 2008. That doesn't include your premium -- what you pay to have insurance in the first place -- and those premiums continue to rise as health care costs continue to rise.

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Your portion also comes in other forms. Most health insurance plans have a deductible, which is the amount you pay before your insurance kicks in.

Also, some hospitals require coinsurance, which is a percentage that you have to pay of the total bill. Let's say your coinsurance is 20 percent. If you need a procedure that costs $10,000 at one hospital, and $5,000 at another, you could save a $1,000 by going to the less expensive hospital.

Some hospitals doing their part

Sometimes hospitals do the cost savings work for you. Intermountain Healthcare in Utah, for example, has managed to keep costs down by instituting certain changes, such as doing fewer Caesarean sections.

About one out of every three babies born in the United States is delivered via Caesarean section, according to the Centers for Disease Control. At Intermountain, one out of every five babies is born by C-section. C-sections are significantly more expensive than vaginal births: $4,500 instead of $2,600, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research And Quality.

If all hospitals had the same C-section rate as Intermountain, the country would save about $2 billion in hospital and doctor costs, according to an analysis done for CNN by Andrew Rubin, vice president for clinical affairs at New York University Langone Medical Center in Manhattan.

Intermountain has also cut down on the number of unnecessary imaging procedures it does, such as CT scans and MRIs.

When a patient arrives to have an imaging exam, Intermountain now checks its own 23 hospitals and other large hospitals in the area to make sure it hasn't been done already. By cutting down on repeat exams, the hospital has saved "tens of millions of dollars," according to Dr. Brent James, the chief quality officer at Intermountain.

How to save money on health care

As health care costs continue to rise, here are some ways to save money.

1. Cost comparison Web sites. A few states, such as Massachusetts and New Hampshire, have cost comparison sites. Go to your state department of health site to find out whether your state offers cost comparisons. These sites give prices for specific procedures at specific facilities. Find links for the health departments of all 50 states at this U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention page.

2. Insurance companies often can compare costs for you at different facilities. Go to your insurance company's Web site.

3. Benefits departments, especially at large employers, can sometimes help compare costs. They can also sometimes help if your insurance company is giving you a hard time about paying its share of doctor's bills.

4. The wisdom of crowds. Ask other people who've had your procedure how much they paid for it. The most efficient way to do this is to go to Web sites where people talk about their medical experiences. Here are a few, such as and's health chat.

5. Call around. Call hospitals and doctors' offices and ask what they'll charge for a certain kind of procedure. This can be very frustrating and hard to do because the office can't always give you a straightforward answer, but it's worth a try because it can save you thousands of dollars.

CNN's Sabriya Rice and John Bonifield contributed to this report.