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If you need to have your appendix removed, let's say, and you are uninsured, there is no way for you to comparison shop. However, the cost of such a surgery can vary widely–from $1,500 to $180,000 depending on a litany of factors including differences among patients, where they were treated, whether they underwent multiple imaging scans, or had a long hospital stay.

Despite the factors that could contribute to the difference in costs between different hospitals for the same procedure, a current study found that 1/3 of the difference in price could not be explained by any of these factors. The authors of the study, published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine, examined 2009 data that hospitals were required to submit to California on 19,368 appendix patients. The study looked at what patients were billed, before health insurance picked up part of the tab.

Other developed countries have laws that prevent wild fluctuations in healthcare costs. U.S. critics says that kind of system prevents supply and demand from generating market competition. But even doctors like Dr. Howard Brody, director of the Institute for the Medical Humanities at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston says that medicine doesn't operate like other sectors.

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