Amid growing scrutiny of hospital billing, a new study finds that California hospitals charged mothers $3,296 to $37,227 for a routine delivery.
For women having a cesarean section, the UC San Francisco study found patients were billed $8,312 to nearly $71,000. Few of the patients in the study released Thursday had serious health issues, and most were discharged within six days of admission.
"Childbirth is the most common reason for hospitalization, and even for an uncomplicated childbirth, we see a staggering difference in what hospitals charge," said lead author Renee Y. Hsia, an associate professor of emergency medicine at UC San Francisco.
Hospitals say these average charges are irrelevant because they have little or no bearing on what they actually get paid by the government, insurers or patients.
On average, this study said, the discounted prices paid by insurers amounted to 37% of the original hospital bill. The researchers said the hospitals in the study billed $1.3 billion in excess charges beyond what they received in reimbursement.
Hsia said these billed amounts can influence what insurers and patients ultimately pay.
"These charges affect not only the uninsured, but also the fee-for-service reimbursements by some private insurers, which can translate to out-of-pocket costs for patients," she said.
More than half a million women give birth at California hospitals annually. The study analyzed nearly 110,000 births in California in 2011 involving women who had private health insurance.
Last year, Medicare published pricing information for more than 3,300 U.S. hospitals on the top 100 procedures and treatments in 2011. The federal health program pays only a fraction of these billed charges.
But federal officials said they released the data in hopes that increased transparency will help squeeze some excess cost out of the healthcare system and enable consumers to become savvier shoppers for care.
Under a state law that took effect in 2006, California hospitals must publish their average charges for the most common procedures on a state website, searchable by consumers.