M   y son-in-law called one day last week, asking my opinion on the purchase of a new washing machine. You know, the usual: brand names, features, cost and all that.

He was picking my brain, in other words.

I didn't give him my opinion so much as I suggested the same thing I've suggested other times in the past -- if you're going to spend a lot of money on something, do your research ahead of time on matters of cost, maintenance history and performance.

I told him to check it out with Consumer Reports, which I believe does a better job evaluating everything from cars to appliances to electronics to sporting goods than does anyone else.

I figured that out maybe 35 years ago, when it occurred to me one day I was wasting a lot of money buying stuff on the cheap that didn't last. Tools. Appliances. TVs. Lawn mowers. You name it, and I probably wasted money on it in my younger days.

I learned the hard way that you generally get what you pay for in this world. There are exceptions, of course, but that usually is the way it works.

So my son-in-law took my advice. He did some checking online, reducing his list of washing machines down to three models and then picked one he thought was the best of the bunch in his price range. It was delivered last week.

It is, I think, the best way to shop for big-ticket items.

In his case, it was a washing machine, but it just as easily could have been a car or a computer.

Or, come to think of it, a medical procedure.

Maybe you heard early last week about a study done by researchers at the University of Iowa and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association's publication JAMA Internal Medicine, having to do with the cost of a hip replacement.

Researchers selected two hospitals from each state and Washington, D.C., that perform total hip replacements, plus 20 top-ranked orthopedic hospitals, and contacted them to determine the cost of the surgery in their facility.

And to their surprise, only nine top-ranked orthopedic hospitals -- 45 percent -- could provide a price for the hip replacement surgery, despite the fact that more than 200,000 total hip replacements are done in this country every year.

By now, you'd think there'd be a general consensus about how much it costs to perform one.

But only 10 hospitals selected at random -- 10 percent -- were able to provide a complete price for the surgery.

And here's the kicker: the range of cost for all of the hospitals surveyed was between $11,100 at the low end and $125,798 at the upper end. That's a price variation of more than 1,000 percent for the same procedure.

I couldn't help but wonder when, under President Obama's national health care program, this sort of nonsense is going to stop. Because I'm pretty certain the idea behind the president's health care program was to reduce the cost of health care, make it more predictable.

That's clearly not the case if 84 percent of hospitals don't even know how to quote a cost when asked and if there's a variable of almost 12 in cost among the 122 hospitals surveyed, 20 of which are considered the best of the best orthopedic centers in the country.

For just one surgical procedure.

One can't help but wonder if it's not the same for all hospital procedures in most hospitals.

And the reason I say that is I've had some personal experience in the last four or five years dealing with hospitals, doctors and insurance companies about health care costs and billing.

You haven't felt frustration until you've tried to read and understand a bill from a hospital, a physician or a health insurance statement. It might as well be written in hieroglyphics, because with all the numeric coding, hospital jargon, medical shorthand and abbreviations it's laughable to think even a reasonably intelligent person could figure it out.

I think I'm reasonably intelligent. Not a genius, mind you, but smart enough. Yet I struggle.

And if you're not reasonably intelligent? Forget it.

That, of course, is what most people do. They pay it if they can, and they try to forget about it. Anything else is too much work.

It's easy enough to learn the cost of a washing machine, a car or a computer -- you just look at the price tag.

But there's no Consumer Report for health care. And costs are certainly not transparent within the health care field. So what does a consumer do?

Most of the time you guess. You assume things.

Then you wait for the ax to fall.

Because the bill will come. It always comes.

Columns by Larry A. Hicks, Dispatch columnist, run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. E-mail: lhicks@yorkdispatch.com.