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911. What is your emergency?

I hope you never hear those words, but if you do, do you think you’ll ask the EMT to hang on a moment while you check prices for setting a broken leg?

Governor Brewer recently vetoed a bill that would have required doctors and hospitals to post prices for common procedures. Supporters of the bill say price transparency would help us be wiser health care consumers.

I’m not so sure.

How much choice do we really have? If I fall off a ladder and break my leg, I want to get to the nearest emergency room. For anything else, my choices are restricted by with whom, for what and where my insurance coverage is valid. And prices are irrelevant. My insurance company has negotiated all of them in advance, and told me what my co-pays and coverage limits are.

If I do have insurance, I can go anywhere I want, and if it’s not an emergency, shop around. But without insurance, I’m screwed. That may be one of the reasons hospitals especially aren’t keen about posting prices.

Without insurance, you’re billed the hospital’s “list price” for all services. In the health care industry, that list price is known as the chargemaster. Time magazine had an excellent cover piece that went into the issue, but it’s now behind a pay wall.

The best I can offer you is an article in the Stamford Advocate that followed up on Time’s coverage of the case of a Stamford resident. She went to the emergency room with chest pains. After three hours of tests and examinations, she was diagnosed with indigestion and sent home. She had no health insurance. Her bill was $21,000.

If she had shopped around she might have decided to risk it and stay home. If it had been a heart attack, she might be dead.

We need more than price transparency to fix health care.