CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A major joint replacement surgery at Logan Regional Hospital probably would cost Medicare about $53,000.
Have your knee replaced at Charleston Area Medical Center, and Medicare would be billed about $38,000. Head over to Summersville and that same procedure will cost, on average, about $18,206.
The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released data on Wednesday detailing the average costs of the 100 most common medical procedures at more than 3,000 hospitals nationwide.
The numbers show a huge disparity in healthcare costs around the country. Nationally, major joint replacements cost Medicare about $50,000 in fiscal year 2011. But Las Colinas Medical Center in Texas charged an average $160,832 for lower joint replacements that year.
The trend plays out among West Virginia hospitals, too. But hospital officials say the Medicare numbers don't show a complete picture of healthcare costs: some hospitals treat sicker patients, which is more costly to Medicare and therefore drives up the average charges.
According to CMS's statistics, Charleston Area Medical Center billed Medicare an average $38,625 for heart attacks with major complications.
West Virginia University Hospitals in Morgantown, meanwhile, billed Medicare an average $47,213 for heart attacks with major complications. In the Northern Panhandle, Wheeling Hospital charged around $16,134 for heart attacks and, in the southern part of the state, Raleigh General Hospital in Beckley charged $24,067.
Patients treated for kidney or urinary tract infections at Wheeling Hospital cost Medicare an average $7,487 in 2011. Logan Regional Medical Center charged nearly twice that much, $14,991, for patients with similar ailments.
CAMC charged Medicare, on average, $13,879 for kidney and urinary tract infections.
While the data might make it seem some hospitals are just jacking up healthcare prices, CAMC chief quality officer Dale Wood said that is not true.
The West Virginia Healthcare Authority sets costs for each state hospital, dictating what hospitals can charge for specific procedures.
"Hospitals don't charge the same, because that wouldn't be fair. But each hospital can only charge what the state says they can charge," he said.
Wood said his hospital's average Medicare charges are higher than other facilities because CAMC is a "safety net hospital."
For instance, patients at Davis Memorial Hospital in Elkins who were diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat cost Medicare an average $6,720 in 2011.
CAMC, meanwhile, charged Medicare an average $10,881 for patients treated for cardiac arrhythmia.
Wood said CAMC's average charges are significantly higher because the patients they treated were significantly sicker. Charges at outlying hospitals generally are lower because they send all their complicated cases to larger facilities.
"It's the kind of patient. There's a certain group of patients, if they came into that hospital with a heart attack, they're going to be shipped here," he said.
Amy Johns, spokeswoman for WVUH, said her hospital's average charges are high for the same reasons.
"We haven't had a chance to review the specific data, but our charges reflect the fact that we get the most difficult and complex cases, with the highest demand for care. We're an academic medical center and have responsibilities that other entities don't have," she said.
Wood also pointed out that hospitals' Medicare charges have little effect on the amount of money they receive from the government insurance program.
"It doesn't matter to some degree what we charge. Because you're only reimbursed a set amount," he said.
The Medicare data reflects that, too.
While CAMC charged an average $38,625 for heart attack treatment in 2011, the hospital received only $12,435 per patient, on average.
WVUH charged Medicare an average $47,213 for heart attack patients, but received $16,526.
Perry Bryant, executive director of West Virginians for Affordable Health Care, applauded Medicare's release of the healthcare cost figures, but warned "trying to make rhyme or reason out of hospital billing is almost impossible."
He said it's important the federal government is providing consumers with information about procedures and costs at local hospitals, but said patients also should consider the quality of care when making healthcare decisions.
And higher costs do not necessarily indicate higher quality, Bryant said. If hospitals take extra steps to prevent infections and other complications, they often can keep healthcare costs low.
"Frequently higher quality will result in lower cost," Bryant said.
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