St. John's Medical Center

The Teton Free Clinic and other medical providers that used to be housed in the Brown Building at St. John’s Medical Center have found a new home.

MRIs are on sale at St. John’s Health.

It’s not like a sale on produce, when the bananas are turning brown or the avocados are going soft and the grocery store wants to unload them. It isn’t a response to scarcity.

Instead, Chief Communications Officer Karen Connelly said, it’s a reaction to the current state of health insurance, which has left some people unable to afford health care procedures even if they are insured. Some patients must pay several thousands of dollars before they reach their deductibles and can even draw a benefit, which makes them feel imaging is an unnecessary luxury.

“We don’t want price to be a barrier preventing our patients from choosing to have their MRI at St. John’s,” Connelly said in an email to the News&Guide.

Such a statement might not have even been necessary just a couple of years ago. Patients didn’t have much choice when it came to MRIs in Jackson because St. John’s was the main provider, but in December 2017 Teton Sports and Spine Imaging opened on Scott Lane.

The facility offers MRIs, and when it opened it billed itself as competition that would lower costs for consumers. Calls made to owner Shaun Andrikopoulos were not returned by press time.

When the facility opened in late 2017, prices were between $850 and $1,750 for an MRI, with the average price at St. John’s being around $1,100. Seasonal discounts offered recently at St. John’s set prices at $750 per scan.

A kind of education

Discount scans aren’t for every injury. The hospital ran a special that ended Dec. 31 for lower back scans, and it is now offering reduced prices on knee scans for injuries like meniscus tears. The cheaper scans are those without contrast, which use a dye that is injected into the patient and show clearer images.

One difference that may allow Teton Sports and Spine Imaging to offer cheaper rates on average is its lack of radiologists on staff. The scans taken at the facility are sent to the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio for radiologists to examine, while St. John’s has on-site radiologists who review imaging done in its facility.

Connelly said part of the motivation for the sale was to educate people about health care services in Teton County and the differences between the clinics.

“We learned, for instance, that many patients being referred for MRIs don’t know that they have a choice to receive care at the community-owned St. John’s MRI,” she wrote. “Other patients who have had MRIs elsewhere in the community told us that they were not aware that the new stand-alone MRI in town isn’t connected with St. John’s Health.”

Connelly stopped short of saying the discounted imaging was a response to competition, but she did say St. John’s has lost one-third to half of its MRI business since Teton Sports and Spine Imaging opened. That kind of a hit can make a dent in the hospital’s bottom line.

Hospitals walk a tightrope in financing themselves. Medicare and Medicaid often pay less than services cost to provide, and uninsured patients often don’t pay anything because they can’t afford it. The losses are made up by elective surgeries, procedures like imaging and payments from private insurance companies. St. John’s also receives a small mill levy from property taxes to cover some of its charity care.

“Hospitals need a positive bottom line in order to be able to replace or improve old buildings, keep up with new technologies and otherwise invest in maintaining and improving their services to meet the rising demand for care,” says an American Hospital Association fact sheet.

Not a common move

That being said, similar resort-town hospitals aren’t champing at the bit to offer discounted MRIs. Aspen Valley Hospital in Aspen, Colorado, is a community nonprofit facility with an elected board, similar to St. John’s.

However, it has an outpatient facility under its umbrella that offers lower-cost imaging than at its hospital, and patients receive reduced costs if they pay cash at the hospital. Aspen Valley has its own kind of competition, though, its relative proximity to Denver.

“A lot of people who get imaging done don’t have the choice to go elsewhere” because they sustained a sports injury, Marketing and Outreach Specialist Jessica Gurrentz said.

If they do have time to wait, they may make the drive to Denver or Glenwood Springs, where the multitude of hospitals gives patients more choice. UC Health, which operates a dozen hospitals in Colorado, said it also doesn’t offer imaging discounts like the ones at St. John’s.

However, like most hospitals (and St. John’s), it negotiates discounts for services with insurance companies within its network.

“I’m not aware of discounts like that that we provide,” Vice President of Communications Dan Weaver said. “I have heard of other discounts — mammograms or other services like that — but it gets complicated with insurance.”

Connelly said the discounted MRIs are simply one part of the hospital’s overall effort to promote community and patient wellness. St. John’s has offered other services at free or discounted rates, such as free screenings for A1C levels, an indicator of prediabetes, during November, which is Diabetes Awareness Month.

Whether “sales” will become a fixture of St. John’s seasonal offerings, Connelly couldn’t say. She said St. John’s administrators hadn’t yet discussed whether the promotions would continue, but they felt it had achieved its desired effect.

“I’ve been told that our communications on the latest promotion have generated about a dozen phone calls,” she wrote. “We are pleased that the communications related to the promotion have been successful in increasing awareness about the St. John’s program.”

This article has been updated to show that Dan Weaver works for UC Health. — Ed.

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-7079 or thallberg@jhnewsandguide.com.

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

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