The perplexing world of medical care payments has made a positive move towards transparency by exposing the inner workings of the healthcare charging system. Data was released by the Federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services showing hospital bills from virtually every hospital in the country in 2011. The bizarre findings revealed large discrepancies in the rates hospitals were charging across the nation, and even miles apart, for the same treatment for Medicare patients.

According to the federal database of national health care cost, a patient seeking treatment at Bayonne Hospital Center in New Jersey for respiratory ailment, known as COPD, would be billed $99,690 for the procedure. Less than 30 miles away at the Lincoln Medical and Mental Health center, a patient receiving the same treatment would only be charged $7,044. To be treated for a heart attack in Danville, Arkansas would be $89,000 dollars cheaper than to be treated for one in Modesto, California.

These puzzling inequities make medical care charges even more difficult to comprehend. Despite the large bill charged by the hospital, the patients are not burdened with the egregious charges. Medicare is not forced to pay the high medical bills; instead, they use a system of payments to reimburse the hospitals for their treatments. The ones who are affected the most with the high treatment prices are those who are uninsured.

In many cases, consumers under Medicare and some private insurers never pay the full price, but often times private insurance companies only pay a portion of the price, leaving sky high medical bills in the hands of the patients and the uninsured. In those situations, the price of the medical treatments matter.  Medicare’s data release has granted consumers in similar situations the opportunity to shop for the best prices among hospitals.

This public release of data is not the end of Medicare’s healthcare system transparency campaign. The agency will announce new funding for data centers that can analyze and publish research on health care prices.

These perplexing discoveries are likely to intensify the debate over the methods hospitals use to determine their charges. For the first time, patients can get an Idea of what hospitals are charging and how much the government is paying on a national scale, giving them the power to choose where they want to receive their medical treatment.

 Sara Papantonio is a writer and researcher for Ring of Fire.