Finding out what an operation or a medical test costs at a hospital in California can take plenty of detective work.[@@]

Researchers with the California HealthCare Foundation, Oakland, Calif., have reported that conclusion in a study based on an informal “mystery shopper” survey of 64 hospitals in 5 California regions.

The foundation had the mystery shops pretend to be uninsured patients and had them try to determine the cost of certain procedures, then look for help with financing the procedures.

Although 470 of the 622 mystery shoppers eventually got firm or estimated prices, 152 of the mystery shoppers ended up without any price information whatsoever.

“Many shoppers had to endure multiple transfers, voicemail messages and call backs, not to mention long hold times,” Amy DelPo writes in a foundation study report. “One mystery shopper reported up to 17 points of contacts in her quest for a response.”

One Los Angeles hospital has a department that gives price estimates to self-insured patients, but the hospital operators transferred mystery shoppers asking for price information to the department only 2 out of 6 times, DelPo writes.

Moreover, even though many hospitals offered some kind of payment plan for elective procedures, about half of the hospitals offer the plans only for patients paying the full, retail price for the procedures, DelPo writes.

Moreover, “unless the shoppers were persistent in asking about financial assistance, few hospital staffers volunteered information about financial assistance or charity care within their own hospitals,” DelPo writes.