Tip Sheets

How Pittsburgh reporter localized the price variation story

By Joseph Burns

When the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association published a report in January 2015 about the wide variation in the cost of hip and knee surgery nationwide, it was a national story. Many journalists treated it that way.

But the report also offered journalists a way to localize the story because it offered so much detail on individual insurance markets. One good example came from journalist Bill Toland of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (@btoland_pg) who wrote about how the city’s hospitals ranked versus hospitals in other markets.

“Pittsburgh-area hospitals offer some of the best and most consistent prices on hip and knee replacements in the U.S., according to a survey issued by Blue Cross Blue Shield insurers,” he explained.

“Locally, the average cost of a knee replacement was $23,751, the fourth-lowest average cost among 64 markets surveyed, according to BCBS claims data from a three-year period. Hip replacements were, on average, $22,134, fifth-lowest of the 64 markets,” Toland added.

The article includes the full report and Toland explained that the figures BCBSA cited are the actual negotiated prices that insurers pay. These are not chargemaster prices hospitals typically quote, he added. “As such, they provide a window into the shrouded, complicated world of hospital economics,” he wrote.

He also compared the relatively low rate of variation among Pittsburgh’s hospitals to the high rates of variation BCBS found in other cities, such as Dallas and Boston.