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Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas Fires Worker for Revealing Prices Up Front, Lawsuit Says

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The lawsuit Patricia Lawson filed Tuesday against Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas is a straightforward discrimination claim. Lawson, a 64-year-old surgical systems supervisor with two decades' experience at the hospital, says Presby fired her in October 2012 for being too old and a woman.

The hospital didn't admit that, of course. No sensible HR manager would fire a member of a protected class without first scrounging up some legally defensible justification. So, when the hospital told Lawson she was fired, it said it had caught her violating Texas Health Resources' code of conduct.

"More specifically," the lawsuit says, "[Lawson] was told she was fired for giving information regarding customary pricing for a surgical procedure to a doctor."

To review, Presby didn't fire Lawson because she was old, which would be illegal. It canned her because she provided information on what potential patients might expect to pay, which is totally kosher.

See also: Medical City is Dallas' Most Expensive Hospital

A spokesman for Texas Health Resources said he would take a look at the lawsuit but has not yet responded to a request for comment. But hospitals' opacity when it comes to pricing is well known.

Stephen Brill's piece in Time last year did a solid job of capturing the absurdity of the health care industry's pricing practices and prompted the federal government to release "chargemaster" data showing the base price hospitals bill Medicare for the most common procedures.

Presby, for the record, bills the feds at a lower rate than most Dallas hospitals. That's something, but the data say little about what insurance companies, or the uninsured, wind up paying, which varies widely based on circumstances and bargaining power.

A rational health care market, one in which patients can make fully informed decisions about which provider to choose based on cost and quality of care, is still a long way off. To get there -- if that ever happens -- prices will have to be posted up front, and there will have to be a relatively easy way to compare them. Also, hospitals will probably have to stop firing employees who tell customers what they'll be charged.

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