How Much Does an MRI Cost?

Last Updated on March 18, 2024
Written by CPA Alec Pow | Content Reviewed by Certified CFA CFA Alexander Popinker

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is an invaluable medical diagnostic tool. But the high-tech nature of MRI scans comes at a steep price that can be confusing to decipher. This guide provides a detailed examination of the many factors influencing MRI costs, offers price ranges with and without insurance based on scan type, provides tips to get the best rates, lays out budgeting strategies, examines hidden fees to watch for, and equips patients to make informed testing decisions.

MRIs leverage strong magnetic fields and radio waves to generate detailed 3D images of organs, tissues, bone, and blood vessels without radiation. While an essential diagnostic tool, the complexity of MRI technology also makes it one of the most expensive scanning procedures, with costs varying based on scan type, location, insurance coverage, and several other key variables.

How Much Does an MRI Cost?

The average cost of an MRI can range anywhere from $400 to $12,000, depending on factors like the place of service, health insurance, location, and the body part scanned.

Imaging Technology News writes that the cost of a single MRI scan ranges between $400 to $10,500, varying based on the body area examined and the location where the MRI is performed. For instance, a brain MRI costs between $1,600 and $8,400, while a neck MRI ranges from $500 to $11,800.

According to SingleCare, the cost of an MRI procedure can range from $375 to $2,850, with the national average cost being $1,325. Factors influencing the cost include the type of scan, inpatient vs. outpatient setting, geographic location, and the need for contrast.

RadiologyAssist offers low-cost MRI options starting at $250, depending on the center chosen and the body part scanned. The program provides affordable rates compared to typical self-pay rates for MRI scans.

Ezra says that an MRI of the neck, also known as a cervical spine MRI, has an out-of-pocket price range of $500 to $11,800. Prices for MRIs can vary widely across different imaging centers, and uninsured individuals may find discounts for self-pay patients at some facilities.

Typical rates for common MRI scan types are:

  • Brain or Head MRI – $800 to $2,000
  • Spine MRI – $1,000 to $3,000
  • Joint MRI (knee, shoulder) – $700 to $1,800
  • Abdomen MRI – $800 to $2,500
  • Pelvis MRI – $650 to $1,500
  • Breast MRI – $700 to $2,000
  • Cardiac MRI with and without contrast – $800 to $2,000

Expect added fees for multi-phase scans involving injection of contrast agents.

MRI Technology and Diagnostic Benefits

To produce clear images of the body’s interior, an MRI utilizes:

  • Powerful superconducting magnets that precisely align atomic particles in tissues.
  • Pulsed radiofrequency waves that cause the magnetized particles to alter their alignment.
  • Complex sensors and receivers that detect the cycling particle changes and convert them into detailed grayscale images.

Furthermore, specialized computer software and trained technologists are required to successfully operate the equipment and analyze the results.

Some key diagnostic benefits of MRI technology include:

  • Exceptional visualization of soft tissue structures without radiation.
  • Multi-planar 3D imaging from various angles.
  • Differentiation of health tissue from diseased tissue.
  • Identification of tumors, joint damage, organ anomalies, and more.
  • Guiding real-time biopsies, surgeries and treatments.

Factors That Drive MRI Pricing

Several essential variables affect what an MRI scan will cost:

  • Type of MRI – A standard single-phase anatomical study or an advanced multi-phase scan involving contrast dye.
  • Body part – Isolated smaller areas cost less to scan than larger regions or multiple body zones.
  • Location – Hospital MRIs range from $1,500 – $3,500 on average, compared to $400 – $1,500 at imaging centers.
  • Insurance coverage – Uninsured patients pay higher out-of-pocket MRI costs, often 2-3x more.
  • Region – Major metro areas have the highest scan costs, and rural locations have the lowest.

Having clarity on these cost determinants empowers patients to make financially savvy testing decisions.

Using Insurance to Reduce MRI Out-of-Pocket Costs

Leveraging health insurance coverage effectively can lower MRI costs substantially through:

  • Negotiated Discounts – Insurers contract set rates often 50% or more below initial charges.
  • Copays – A fixed dollar amount, typically $100-$300, paid per MRI scan.
  • Coinsurance – Patients pay a set percentage, often 20% of the final allowed charges.
  • Deductibles – Patients pay 100% of MRIs costs until a set annual threshold is met, after which insurance starts covering a portion of costs.

Always verify plan details with your insurance provider when budgeting for an upcoming MRI. Ask about out-of-pocket maximums as well.

You might also like our articles about the cost of a HIDA scan, a Pelvic ultrasound, or an MRCP test.

Strategies to Reduce MRI Testing Expenses

Some proven ways to lower MRI costs include:

  • Using in-network stand-alone imaging centers rather than hospital facilities when possible.
  • Shopping around for facilities offering discounts for uninsured patients in need of MRIs.
  • Asking your physician if less expensive ultrasound or x-ray imaging could provide the needed diagnostic information.
  • Comparing prices from multiple imaging centers in your region to find the best value.
  • Negotiating prompt-pay or cash discounts if paying out-of-pocket.
  • Setting up extended interest-free payment plans for larger medical bills.
  • Applying for financial assistance from hospitals or charities if eligible based on income criteria.
  • Using tax-advantaged HSAs or FSAs to pay for testing and maximize savings.

What’s Included in an MRI Cost Estimate?

MRI MachineWhen requesting a pricing estimate from providers, key charges may include:

  • Technician and radiologist fees for operating equipment and interpreting results, often $100-$500 total.
  • Use of the MRI machine itself – hospitals bill $500-$1,500, imaging centers $200-$500.
  • Patient prep materials like gowns, ear protection, and IV contrast agents if needed, up to $50-$300.
  • Administrative fees covering insurance coordination, scheduling, records, billing – $50-$300.
  • Facility overhead costs from hospitals or clinics, ranging from $300-$1,000.

Ask for an itemized cost breakdown when seeking estimates so you understand what’s driving pricing.

Can Patients Get MRIs Without Insurance?

The simple answer is yes, but prepare to pay more. Those willing to fully self-pay can potentially bypass insurance preapproval requirements. However, uninsured MRI costs range from $1,000 to $3,500+ per scan at hospitals and $500 to $1,500+ at imaging centers without negotiated discounts.

For most patients, discussing symptoms with a doctor who can determine if an MRI is warranted based on history and exam findings is the appropriate first step, along with leveraging insurance. But paying out-of-pocket is an option.

Final Words

In summary, while MRIs provide invaluable diagnostic insights, they also come with potentially high price tags. But being an engaged patient, researching your options, asking questions, and using insurance effectively allows you to access this key medical tool while controlling out-of-pocket expenses. Use this guide to demystify MRI costs so you can budget wisely and seek scans at accessible price points – your health matters.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I just ask for an MRI?

No, patients cannot request and receive an MRI simply because they ask for one. Doctors must order MRIs when clinically warranted based on a patient’s medical history, symptoms, exam findings and diagnostic needs.

Since MRIs are expensive tests and involve exposure to powerful magnetic fields, insurance companies will not authorize payment without a physician’s referral with documented reasons for ordering the MRI.

Exceptions are rare, such as a patient willing to pay completely out-of-pocket. Otherwise, MRIs require a prescription from a doctor who determines one is essential for medical diagnosis or ongoing treatment assessment. Patients should discuss their symptoms with a physician who can determine if an MRI or other imaging test is appropriate.

Why won’t my doctor order an MRI?

There are a few reasons why a doctor may not order an MRI test even if requested by a patient:

  • Symptoms and exam findings don’t indicate an MRI is needed over other tests like x-rays or ultrasounds that give the necessary diagnostic information at lower cost.
  • MRI results won’t change the planned course of treatment or prognosis based on the suspected condition.
  • Patient has implanted devices like pacemakers or defibrillators that preclude MRI use for safety reasons.
  • Recent legislation or insurance protocols limit doctors’ ability to self-refer patients for services at facilities they own, including MRIs.
  • Doctor prefers to take a staged approach with initial X-rays or CT scans progressing to MRI only if clinically warranted.
  • The patient is claustrophobic or unable to lie still making it difficult to obtain a high-quality MRI.

Doctors consider many factors when determining which imaging tests will provide the most useful diagnostic insights tailored to an individual patient’s circumstances and medical history.

How long does an MRI take?

The duration of an MRI scan depends on the body part being imaged, with most taking 30-60 minutes. However, the entire process takes 1-3 hours including:

  • Paperwork and consent form completion: 10-15 minutes
  • Changing into an MRI-safe gown: 10 minutes
  • MRI technologist consultation: 10-15 minutes
  • Positioning on the MRI table: 5-10 minutes
  • Initial calibration scans: 5-10 minutes
  • Main MRI scan series: 30-60 minutes
  • Time between scan sequences: 15-30 minutes

So while the active scan time is under an hour, the complete process from arrival to departure can last 1-3 hours. Patients should expect an extended visit and make appropriate arrangements for obligations before and after their scheduled MRI.

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