Published: 27 January 2014 09:37 PM
Dallas Morning News
WASHINGTON — I often write about the cost of health care, guided by the perception that Americans pay too much and get too little in return.
On Wednesday, it gets personal.
I am about to have knee replacement surgery at a hospital in Alexandria, Va., just across the Potomac River.
Both knees are shot. I played too much football, had two surgeries for torn cartilage and ran for too many years on unforgiving concrete sidewalks. An orthopedist told me in 2004 that I could keep on running and soon face knee replacements or quit running and postpone the inevitable.
Nine years later, it’s hard to dance or even walk the supermarket aisles with my wife. Running is out of the question. At my last physical, I explained this to Dr. Bilal Desai, my physician. She gave me a referral to an orthopedic group.
“You need total knee replacements — both knees,” said Dr. Daniel Weingold, the surgeon who explained my X-rays to me.
We discussed alternatives — Ibuprofen, weight loss, intense exercise — but none of those would repair the damage. Weingold said he could do the surgery at Inova Alexandria Hospital.
Inova owns several hospitals in Northern Virginia, as well as the outpatient clinic where Dr. Desai practices.
I remembered reading that a knee replacement at Inova Alexandria Hospital would cost as much as $5,000 more than at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital, a few miles away.
I asked Weingold. He doubted there could be such a difference between two Inova hospitals. Well, what are the charges, I asked. He did not know. None of the surgeons in his group practices at Mount Vernon, he said, but if I wanted to go there, we could stop now and I could go to another orthopedic group.
I said I wanted to talk with my insurance company.
I emailed BlueCross BlueShield of Texas, which administers our health plan here at The Dallas Morning News. I asked: Do you have any information about which hospital does a better job? What the costs are? Does it make a difference to you if one is cheaper than the other?
I was told that both hospitals are in our health plan’s PPO, or preferred provider network, as is Dr. Weingold. Since the hospitals are in Virginia rather than Dallas, I was told, BlueCross Blue-Shield of Texas doesn’t have much information to go on in terms of a recommendation.
Like a lot of people working for Dallas companies, we have a high-deductible health plan designed to make employees better health care shoppers. My deductible is $1,500, and my out-of-pocket maximum is $3,000. I knew I would blow through that, regardless of which hospital I chose.
I’m not eligible for Medicare, but I looked at the Medicare charge information for 3,000-plus hospitals in the country. In 2011, Inova Alexandria Hospital charged $32,051 for a total knee replacement. Inova Mount Vernon Hospital charged $27,549.
I looked at the charges for Dallas hospitals. Medical City Dallas charged $117,616. Baylor University Medical Center charged $43,852. Texas Health Presbyterian charged $58,854.
None of the hospitals in Dallas charged less than $32,938, which was nearly $900 more than the Alexandria hospital.
‘Medicine in America’
I went back to Dr. Desai and told her she’d referred me to an orthopedic practice and hospital where the charges were $5,000 more.
“That’s a lot of money,” she said. “Go to Mount Vernon.”
“But I don’t know a surgeon at Mount Vernon. I went where you referred me,” I said.
“I can write you a blank referral and you can find a surgeon and fill it in,” she suggested.
“Well, why don’t you know about the difference in these hospital charges?” I asked.
“We don’t know about that,” she said. “That’s just medicine in America.”
I’m having the surgery on my right knee at Inova Alexandria. I’ll see how it goes but expect Mount Vernon Hospital will get my left knee.