How Much Do CAT Scans Really Cost?

The CAT scan is an invaluable tool for diagnosing stokes, monitoring both cancerous and non-cancerous growths, pinpointing the exact location of blood clots in the lungs, and detecting herniated discs, among many other procedures.

CAT scanAs many as 80 million CAT scans are performed annually in the United States, and that number should continue increasing if recent history is any indicator. According to data published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, doctors ordered CAT scans at a rate of 149 tests per thousand patients in 2010, which was up nearly three times from the 1996 rate of 52 scans per thousand patients.

But as it is with most things medical, cost is source of confusion, concern, and frustration for many potential patients. Why are some CAT scans so expensive? And better yet, why is there such a range of prices for CAT scans?

HealthCost has the information and the tools you need to make an intelligent and informed decision as a healthcare consumer. Here’s what you need to know.

How Much Should I Expect to Pay for a CAT Scan?

The cost of a CAT scan can be broken into two parts. The first is the cost for the use of the scanner/equipment. The second is the cost the physician charges to interpret the information from the scan. When billed in a freestanding imaging center you might receive one combined bill for both. When you have a scan at the hospital you will most likely receive two bills. A CT scanner is an expensive piece of equipment – several million dollars up front for equipment and installation, plus annual costs in the hundreds of thousands for maintenance. As such, hospitals and imaging centers need to balance consumer pricing with patient volume in order to recoup these costs.

A CAT scan can cost between $200 and $400 on the low end or as high as $7,000. The dramatic variance is the result of a number of factors, the biggest of which is the type of scan being done. Neither medical providers nor insurance companies consider all CAT scans equal. There are several dozen types of CAT scans – brain, chest, heart, neck, leg, pelvis, and more. Each requires a certain amount of time and skill to appropriately capture the images necessary for diagnosis.

Some – including the CT angiography (CTA) scan that looks at blood vessels to try to prevent major cardiovascular events – require contrast for more precise imaging. This ends up being another cost passed on to the consumer.

Insurance typically covers most or all of the cost of a CAT scan, but this isn’t always the case. If there is a balance on your bill, it’s most likely because your insurance provider has deemed the procedure to be not medically necessary, setting you back hundreds – sometimes thousands – of dollars. This may become more common going forward as insurers are starting to evaluate the enormous cost differences between CAT scans at hospitals and those done at standalone imaging centers. Anthem, for instance, has dropped coverage of the former in some states without preauthorization.

Price also tends to vary due to location. Geographical differences in healthcare costs are nothing new, but for something with high overhead like a CAT scan, rural areas may see larger than normal disparities compared to their urban counterparts. That’s largely because there are fewer options – the nearest imaging center may be 100 miles away or more – and because patient volume can be low, requiring the service provider to offset its costs in other, consumer-facing ways.

As our search feature will show you, the difference in cost for a scan of the abdomen with contrast in the city of Chicago compared to one about 45 minutes outside the city, in Oak Lawn, Illinois, is huge – $210 vs. $505. That’s almost $300 dollars you can save by using HealthCost to shop around for your best option.

Do I Really Need a CAT Scan?

The “CAT” in CAT scan stands for computerized axial tomography, which is one way of saying this procedure examines cross-sections of your body. The images generated are impossible to capture via a traditional x-ray machine. Previously, these angles were only accessible through invasive procedures, and since the technology became available to practitioners in the 1970s, the images have gotten more and more precise and examined issues and abnormalities on increasingly detailed levels.

But should you have one? That’s a conversation every patient should have with his or her doctor. For instance, there’s increasing debate about whether CAT scans are the safest way to image the body because of the radiation they produce, which is, according to one expert, more than 500 times higher than that of an x-ray machine.

However, if the CAT scan is what you feel like you need, don’t let the cost scare you away from what could be a valuable tool for preventing or fending off something potentially serious. HealthCost can help you cut through the confusion of the marketplace and find a high-quality, low-cost provider near you.

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