How to save on health care costs

by Lesley Politi on November 10, 2008

November 9, 2008

The shaky economy has many Americans taking shortcuts on their health, skipping doctor appointments and cutting back on medications to save money.

American workers, on average, are paying twice as much for their family health insurance as they did in 1999, according to a September report from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

While some health care costs are beyond your control, there are things you can do to lower your bottom line without forgoing care:

Ask about generics. This one seems like a no-brainer, but doctors don’t always factor in price when prescribing medications. Don’t be afraid to ask if there’s a generic version of a medication that would work just as well. Also ask whether it would be OK to split pills in half. But keep in mind that not every generic is identical to its brand-name counterpart, so always talk to a health professional before switching.

Find out if a Health Savings Account is right for you. These accounts allow people with high-deductible insurance plans to put away money to pay for out-of-pocket health expenses. Funds in an HSA are not subject to taxes at the time they’re deposited, and they accrue interest. Plus, unlike a Flexible Spending Account, “any unused dollars in a health savings account . . . can roll forward to the next year,” said John Gialamas, vice president of sales and services at Aetna. This requires setting aside money upfront, but “it’s a saving vehicle you can use later on,” Gialamas said.

Consider a retail clinic before going to the ER. Walgreens and other retail pharmacies have in-store clinics where you can be treated for flu, ear infections and other non-emergency conditions for as little as $59. These clinics, which are staffed by nurse practitioners and physician assistants, also tend to stay open later than a doctor’s office, so you might be able to avoid an expensive trip to the emergency room if your primary physician isn’t available.

Check your hospital bill for mistakes. It’s not uncommon for hospitals to bill patients for services they didn’t receive. If you get a bill that isn’t itemized, ask for one. Then contact the hospital’s billing department if you find a mistake.

Negotiate hospital bills. State law requires hospitals to offer patients a reasonable payment plan if they’re unable to pay a bill upfront. And every hospital has a financial assistance policy, although these are often limited to the uninsured. “Patients are always able to talk to their hospital and ask them for a billing and payment arrangement,” said Danny Chun of the Illinois Hospital Association.

Shop around. Check several pharmacies, including online stores such as drug, to compare prices on your medications. It’s also worth checking whether your insurance plan has a mail-order pharmacy, which could save you a significant amount. You can use the same approach to elective medical procedures now that some insurance companies allow you to compare costs between hospitals.

Schedule that root canal for the end of the year. Expensive medical procedures that require multiple doctor visits can max out your annual coverage limits. If it’s not urgent, consider starting the procedure toward the end of your plan year. That way, you can reduce your out-of-pocket expenses by spreading some of the cost to a new plan year.

Give those dental school students some practice. The University of Illinois at Chicago has the area’s only dental school clinic, where students provide high-quality dental care that’s almost always cheaper than what you’d pay in a private office setting. Students at the clinic, 801 S. Paulina, are supervised at all times. But you’ll have to get to the clinic early in order to be seen, and procedures may take longer than they would otherwise


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