How Much Does an IV Bag of Saltwater Cost?


It is no secret that medical care in the United States is overpriced. But as the tale of the humble IV bag shows all too clearly, it is secrecy that helps keep prices high: hidden in the underbrush of transactions among multiple buyers and sellers, and in the hieroglyphics of hospital bills.

At every step from manufacturer to patient, there are confidential deals among the major players, including drug companies, purchasing organizations and distributors, and insurers. These deals so obscure prices and profits that even participants cannot say what the simplest component of care actually costs, let alone what it should cost. And that leaves taxpayers and patients alike with an inflated bottom line and little or no way to challenge it.

In May 2012, a food poisoning outbreak struck upstate New York, causing more than 100 people to seek hospital treatment. Times reporter Nina Bernstein attempted to figure out what individual patients were charged for an IV bag with sterile saltwater to replenish their lost fluids. You will be surprised to learn (or not surprised at all) that this proved to be much more difficult than expected because of our opaque system of pricing where the charges appear to be mysterious. One woman who paid $100 for her visit sums it up for a lot of patients: “Honestly, I don’t understand the system at all.”

Photo: The National Guard

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