Need Surgery? It Might Be Cheaper in the Next Town Over

medical bills
Javier Brosch/

If you live in the United States, you probably already know — and have had reason to complain about — how expensive our health care system can be.

It seems unfair that Americans can end up so deeply in debt over such an unavoidable expense. Even the simplest medical services can cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. Case in point: the story of the $629 Band-Aid due to hospital fees.

Or the fact that in some markets, Medicare is opting for house calls rather than traditional care. Apparently, the old school way isn’t just more personable — it’s actually more affordable, too.

But did you know you might stand to save some money on your next medical procedure… by taking a road trip first?

The Cost of Health Care By State

Last month, the Health Care Cost Institute issued its National Chartbook on Health Care Prices report.

It uses Humana, Aetna and UnitedHealthcare insurance claim data to analyze how the price of medical procedures varies across America — both at the city and state level.

And as it turns out, prices do vary. A lot.

For instance, a knee replacement might cost you more than $57,000 in Sacramento, California — or as little as $21,900 in Tucson, Arizona, NPR reports.

Scrolling through the report’s copious, color-coded maps, Arizona shows up again and again as a state with a low price ratio for most procedures. Patients there can expect to pay a percentage less than the national average.

The same is true of Florida, Tennessee and Maryland.

But findings were less sunny for states like Alaska, Wisconsin and Minnesota, where patients pay up to 133% of the national average — or more — for everything from CT scans to treatment of mononucleosis.

Now that I’m thinking about it, maybe heating is a big factor in the cost of a medical procedure.

Costs vary within state lines, too.

For example, although a knee replacement runs Sacramentans almost $60K, their neighbors in Riverside can expect to pay about half that price.

So, seriously: You might just want to stash a road map along with your insurance card. And you’ve been meaning to head to the Grand Canyon anyway, right?

How to Save Money on Medical Bills

Obviously, if you have a medical emergency or need urgent care, the last thing you’re going to think about is shopping around for the best-priced doctor — and driving hours to reach them.

But if you’re having an elective procedure — or can wait out your misery just a little while — traveling to get cheaper medical service might actually save you a ton of cash.

And if enough people are willing to shop around, it could also put pressure on hospitals to make prices more competitive.

Wondering where to start when doctor-shopping?

Well, the maps in the HCCI’s report are a good start, and there are other reputable online tools to help you estimate prices in your area. Try Fair Health Consumer and the Healthcare Blue Book.

(Psst: While you’re at it, check out our post on 10 ways to save big money on medical bills — even ones you already owe.)

Once you locate a few doctors in prime locations, feel free to pick up the phone and ask them what they charge. They’re not obligated to tell you — but they usually will, according to U.S. News Health.

Unless you put a lot of footwork into your decision process, your savings aren’t guaranteed or probably even quantifiable.

But when we’re talking tens of thousands of dollars, isn’t it worth a try?

Your Turn: Would you take a road trip to save some money on a surgery or medical procedure?

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Her creative writing has been featured in DMQ Review, Sweet: A Literary Confection and elsewhere.