Back MRI costs vary widely, even within the same city. (Cory Doctorow/Flickr)
Back MRI costs vary widely, even within the same city. (Cory Doctorow/Flickr)

In June, KQED launched PriceCheck, our crowdsourcing project on health costs. We’re working in collaboration with KPCC, public media in Los Angeles, and, a New York City startup looking at health costs.

We’re asking you, the members of our community, to share what you’ve paid. We started with mammograms. We have both cash or “self-pay” prices in our database. We also have crowdsourced prices. The range we’ve found, even in close geographic areas, is startling.

Here’s one example: ClearHealthCosts collected self-pay prices at various centers in the Bay Area and Southern California. If a woman walks into the NorCal Imaging Center in Walnut Creek, a screening mammogram will cost her $125, if she pays out of pocket.

Meanwhile, the same mammogram will cost you $173 at NorCal Imaging in Oakland, $48 more, a 38 percent increase.

Across the bay in San Francisco, UCSF charges $801 for a screening mammogram — but offers a 40 percent discount if a woman is paying out of pocket and pays at the time of service. This brings the cost paid down to $480.60.

Which would you rather pay — $480.60 or $125?

Then we heard from a member of our community who has Blue Shield and had her screening mammogram at UCSF. She said UCSF had listed its charged price as $801, but Blue Shield paid $283.55.

In other words, those without insurance are paying nearly $200 more for a mammogram than the women with this type of insurance if they get a screening mammogram at UCSF.

In Los Angeles, our co-conspirators at KPCC’s Impatient blog described a woman whose insurer paid $649 for her mammogram at Glendale Adventist Medical Center. Compare that price with the lowest in our database statewide — $60 for a mammogram at the H. Claude Hudson Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Share Your Back MRI Prices

We’re moving on now to back MRIs. (Don’t worry, we’ll happily accept your mammogram prices if you still want to share those!)

We’re interested in comparing MRIs of the lower back or upper back, either with or without contrast.

We’re already astonished by what we’ve found.

Folks, the range just in the city of San Francisco is $575 to $6,221. Yes, more than a 10-fold difference. That $6,221 MRI of the lower back, without contrast, is done at UCSF. To be fair, it comes with the same 40 percent discount for self-pay that UCSF offers for mammograms as well.

The discounted price is $3,732.60, still significantly more expensive than the next one down the list, $2,607 at California Pacific Medical Center.

You can search for yourself by visiting PriceCheck, entering any zip code in the Bay Area for MRI lower back, without contrast, and search in a 100-mile range.

The $575 MRI is offered at Health Diagnostics. You can get the price down to $500 by heading to San Jose’s PremiereScan. You can get it for $300 at Universal MRI & CT Inc. on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.

PriceCheck: How Much Does A Back MRI Cost? 4 September,2014Lisa Aliferis

  • ldfrmc

    PriceCheck is as much of a joke as the visits need to get a procedure and medical billing for a back MRI. The comment section for the back MRI is “closed” with no comments posted or allowed.

    An MRI gets ordered by a doctor ($), is performed by a facility ($$$) and gets read by a radiologist ($$) who then sends the report to the doctor ($ another visit) or another doctor (specialist referral $$$). How is all this cost accounted for?!

    Then there are all the bills: referring doctor, MRI facility, MRI radiologist, specialist if something is found that needs follow-up or treatment.

    Then there is which doctors contract with which facilities (at different prices) and contract with which insurance plans through which group (employer, self-pay, self-insured, Medicare, MediCal).

    How is anyone expected to “shop” or “compare” any cost in healthcare?!

    • Thank you so much for alerting us to the comments being closed on our PriceCheck page. It was a technical glitch which we have fixed. The comments there are open again.


Lisa Aliferis

Lisa Aliferis is the founding editor of KQED’s State of Health blog. Since 2011, she’s been writing and editing stories for the site. Before taking up blogging, she toiled for many years (more than we can count) producing health stories for television, including Dateline NBC and San Francisco’s CBS affiliate, KPIX-TV. She also wrote up a handy guide to the Affordable Care Act, especially for Californians. Her work has been honored for many awards. Most recently she was a finalist for “Best Topical Reporting” from the Online News Association. You can follow her on Twitter: @laliferis

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