Why are prices for medical care such a mystery?

By the same token, it's shameful that a family has to accept $5,000 deductibles as the trade-off for a halfway affordable insurance premium. But a deal's a deal, so Kamp has no grounds to gripe about getting stuck with UCLA's absurd bill.

If there's any shovel-ready room for improvement here, it's the role of insurers in helping policyholders make informed decisions about treatments.

Insurance companies should require all in-network doctors and hospitals to provide average prices for various procedures. Whenever a policyholder asks if a procedure is covered, he or she would also find out the average price for the facility in question.

Even better, the insurer would include prices of other medical facilities, just like some car insurers routinely show how their rates compare with those of competitors.

I asked a Cigna spokeswoman, Amy Turkington, if her company would be open to such a system.

"We acknowledge and agree that more must be done to educate American consumers about healthcare prices, and about how much costs can vary for the same procedure based on where that service is provided," she replied.

Along those lines, Turkington said Cigna last year began including cost information on its Find a Doctor online search engine. But it's questionable whether most people would think to hunt for the cost of an MRI at a specific hospital as part of a Find a Doctor search.

Moreover, Cigna's search site is hardly a model of user-friendliness. UCLA's Santa Monica hospital wasn't even listed when I searched for MRI providers in West L.A., and I saw no readily available price information.

Healthcare is the only consumer service that gets away with keeping customers in the dark about costs. I can't think of any other business that's permitted to operate this way.

In Kamp's case, that $5,000 deductible made the whole debate moot — and that's nothing for Cigna to be proud of. Were Kamp and his family actually covered for that MRI, it clearly would have been in Cigna's interest to help steer them to the most cost-effective place to have the procedure done.

But that's not how healthcare works in this country. You're basically left to fend for yourself in a system with more moving parts than a game of Mousetrap.

It's sad, unnecessary and very expensive.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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