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Utahns, who compare prices before buying a car, suit or even groceries, can now shop around for the best "buy" in hospital procedures.

The Utah Hospital Association Tuesday released "A Guide to 1988 Hospital Charges by Categories." The nearly 500-page report, which includes data voluntarily submitted by 48 Utah hospitals, compares 477 diagnosis-related groups (illness categories). To the discerning consumer, the findings will be fascinating.For example, the new shopper's guide shows that the University of Utah Hospital is charging considerably more for a heart transplant than is LDS Hospital, even though both facilities are members of UTAH Cardiac, a consortium that includes the U., LDS, Primary Children's Medical Center and the Veterans Administration Medical Center.

The report does not include data on physician charges, long-term care, HMOs and insurance premiums. But association officials believe the second edition report is essential to the discerning consumer in a competitive health-care market.

"Its release is only part of an overall strategy to provide comprehensive information to patients, providers, payers and policymakers," said UHA President Kenneth H. Rock. Other health-care providers and insurers need to follow suit if the consumer is to have a total picture of health-care costs.

The guide contains both average charges and median charges, which each Utah hospital billed in-patients during calendar year 1988. UHA believes that median charges more accurately reflect the actual procedure change than does the average which is subject to skewed distortions created by extreme cases. The number of cases and average length of stay from which the charges were derived are also reported.

According to the UHA, the report reveals more than which hospital is charging the most - or least - for each procedure.

It shows that Utah's health-care system is faring well in comparison with other states.

"If you are admitted to a Utah hospital, you'll experience nearly the shortest length of stay in the nation - second only to Oregon, said Dr. Bruce Murray, UHA director of research and planning. "This is partially due to a healthier and younger population, but also crediting our hospital care delivery system efficiency."

Murray said Utah's costs are also lower.

"It is significant that the average cost per hospital stay in 1988 was significantly lower in Utah ($3,875) than in hospitals both in the Mountain Region ($4,121) and the United States ($4,205), a trend that has been consistently the same for at least the last decade."

Statistics recently released by UHA's "TrendWatch" publication show that cost per stay has increased only 1.1 percent from June, 1988, to June, 1989 ($3,961 to $4,004). This, Murray said, is a very striking change in a trend that has seen a lot higher increases in recent years.

Thirty-nine of the 43 UHA-member facilities, including general, acute-care and specialty hospitals voluntarily provided charges data for the UHA guide. Four atypical facilities were exempted from participation. Nine of 11 non-UHA-member facilities also provided data and two of these were exempted.

Several states require that hospitals reveal such data.

But Murray says Utah hospitals don't believe that's the answer to controlling health-care costs.

The new report will be distributed to public libraries or may be purchased by contacting the Utah Hospital Association, 364-1515.