Some Pennsylvania heart surgery units that charge below-average prices earn above-average quality scores.

Researchers have reported that conclusion in a study of 60 cardiac surgery departments that was organized by the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council, a state agency.

The researchers drew on data on 17,000 coronary artery bypass graft and heart valve procedures conducted in 2005.

Some hospitals reported relatively high charges yet received low quality marks, the researchers report.

The state average for CABG procedures was about $100,000 in 2005. One hospital studied, Conemaugh Valley Memorial Hospital, Johnstown, charged only $62,053 for the procedure but had better-than-expected mortality experience, the researchers report.

Health care experts note, however, that comparing the cost effectiveness of hospitals can be difficult, because excellent hospitals may end up with lower performance scores if they attract a high percentage of sicker, older, more difficult-to-treat patients, and the discounted rates that hospitals actually charge insured patients and indigent patients might be far different from the sticker prices for the procedures that they perform.

Other study findings:

- For a CABG-only procedure, commercial insurance payments averaged $30,247, and Medicare payments averaged $29,175.

- 4.4% of the patients studied contracted an infection while in the hospital.

- Patients who underwent both CABG surgery and a valve procedure during the same hospitalization were the most likely to contract a hospital-acquired infection, with 8% contracting an infection.

- Only 3.6% of the patients who underwent CABG procedures with no valve procedures contracted hospital-acquired infections. They were the heart patients studied who were the least likely to become infected.

A copy of the study is on the Web .