02/27/2013 05:00 pm ET

Emergency Room Costs Can Vary By Thousands Of Dollars, Study Finds

Some people pay as little as $50 out-of-pocket to get treated for a urinary tract infection at an emergency room, while others may pay upward of $73,000, according to a new study in the journal PLOS ONE.

In the study, University of California, San Francisco researchers examined the differences in out-of-pocket costs for common outpatient conditions one might go to an ER for.

"Our study shows unpredictable and wide differences in health care costs for patients," study researcher Dr. Renee Y. Hsia, M.D., assistant professor of emergency medicine at UCSF and attending physician in the ER at San Francisco General Hospital & Trauma Center, said in a statement.

The research is based on outpatient visits among people ages 18 to 64 who were included in the 2006-2008 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey. There were 8,303 emergency department encounters (representative of 76.6 million emergency department visits) included in the study. Almost half of the participants were privately insured; researchers purposely excluded people over age 65 since they're covered by Medicare. Some of the most common reasons for why people visited the emergency department included "other injuries" and "open wounds of extremities."

Researchers found that the median amount a person or insurance company was billed for an outpatient condition was $1,233 -- upper respiratory infections had the lowest median cost, at $740, and kidney stones had the highest median cost, at $3,437.

The amount of money people or their insurance companies were billed ranged widely; for example, a sprain or strain cost anywhere from $4 to $24,110, while getting treated for kidney stones cost anywhere from $128 to $39,408. Intestinal infection costs ranged from $29 to $29,551 and headache treatments cost from $15 to $17,797.

Researchers also found that the lowest median price was paid by uninsured people, followed by privately insured people, and then people on Medicaid.

"All too often a patient presents to the ED with the reasonable question, 'How much will I get charged for this?' and [insurance] providers are unable to answer," researchers wrote in the study. "Though clearly we cannot expect providers to predict the resource utilization required for an undifferentiated patient, we believe that they should at least be more informed of the variability of charges in our current system."

Recently, a report from the Commonwealth Fund showed that nearly half of women between ages 19 and 64 have opted not to go to the doctor for a medical condition, or turned down medication, because of cost reasons. While that report didn't look specifically at ER costs alone, it still showed that the U.S. is worse than other countries -- including Great Britain, Canada and France -- in terms of women skipping out on care due to costs.

Recently, the Columbus Dispatch reported on a doctor who has expanded his practice's hours to 11 p.m. on weekdays so that his patients don't have to pay more to receive help at an ER.

"We are beginning to see an increasing number of primary-care physicians who are making themselves available during evening and night hours," Reginald Fields, who is a spokesman for the Ohio State Medical Association, told the Columbus Dispatch.