Will San Francisco hospitals cut prices, as Seattle’s Swedish did?

Swedish Health System, one of Seattle’s largest health care providers, is slashing outpatient prices dramatically, but there’s no sign yet that San Francisco hospitals are likely to follow in its footsteps.

The Puget Sound Business Journal, an affiliated publication, reported Tuesday that Swedish Health System is cutting outpatient prices by an average of 35 percent, as it works to improve efficiency and adapt to health reform.

For example, the Puget Sound paper reported, an outpatient MRI of the brain that used to cost more than $6,100 will now cost 70 percent less, just $1,810.

But the “cuts won’t apply to inpatient care, including births and other hospitalizations,” reporter Valerie Bauman wrote.

One way Swedish was able to bring rates down, the Puget Sound Business Journal notes, was through major layoffs and attrition in recent years. About 1,400 Swedish Health System employees departed in 2012, “including 530 who were laid off,” the paper reported.

Will hospitals in San Francisco and the Bay Area, including high-end, often-expensive places like California Pacific Medical Center, UCSF Medical Center, Stanford Hospital & Clinics and John Muir Health take a cue from Swedish?

Too early to tell, of course, but the contracting experts at San Francisco-based Blue Shield of California, which contracts with virtually all big hospitals and medical groups in the region, say there’s no sign of such a trend here yet.

“We have not seen providers in the Bay Area dropping their overall rates,” said Blue Shield spokesman Steve Shivinsky.

“Occasionally we see a hospital reduce certain outpatient rates in order to keep outpatient surgeries from going to (external) ambulatory surgery centers,” he said. “but when this occurs, we often see them trying to make up for those cuts elsewhere, so our overall payments don’t decrease.”

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