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Health Care & Insurance

Save Money on Health Care

Are your medical expenses enough to make you sick? Here are 11 ways to ease the pain.

Are your medical expenses enough to make you sick? You're not alone. Out-of-pocket medical bills cost the average household $2,976 last year.

Here are 11 ways to ease the pain.

1. BYPASS THE DOCTOR'S OFFICE

For routine problems such as a sore throat, ear infection or flu shot, consider your local drug, grocery or retail store. Many have walk-in clinics staffed with nurse practitioners or physician assistants that can treat your ailment for less money than the doctor's office or urgent care.

For instance, in Minnesota, a visit to a retail clinic costs $110 on average, versus $156 for urgent care and $166 for a family physician, according to a study by the Rand Corp., a nonprofit think tank, which priced three procedures. Several insurance companies cover retail-clinic care.


2. USE THE ER PROPERLY

The average emergency room visit in the Rand study cost $570. If you have a serious, life-threatening problem, the ER is the right place to go. If you don't, save your money and go to the doctor's office.

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3. COMPARE DRUG COSTS

Different stores charge different prices for the same drugs. Call around to shop for the lowest price, or try http://shopping.destinationrx.com to find prescription- and nonprescription-drug prices online and in your own neighborhood.

For instance, we searched for a 30-day supply of Plavix (75 mg) in the Baltimore suburbs. Prices ranged from $150 at Costco to $165 at the Giant grocery store. A $15 savings per month adds up to $180 per year.


4. DON'T SKIMP ON COVERAGE

One of the costliest mistakes you can make is to buy a policy with inadequate coverage. These policies may look attractive because they have low premiums and deductibles. But a maximum benefit of as little as $50,000 to $100,000 per accident or illness could leave you with tens of thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses.

A better way to lower your premiums is to buy a high-deductible policy with a coverage limit of at least $1 million. If you buy a policy with a deductible of at least $1,200 for single coverage or $2,400 for family coverage in 2009, you can also make tax-deductible contributions to a health savings account and use the money tax-free for medical costs in any year.


5. KNOW YOUR POLICY'S RULES

How well do you know your insurance coverage? Each plan may have different requirements about visiting out-of-network doctors, getting preapproval for procedures, getting referrals to specialists, etc.

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Follow your insurer's rules, and you're less likely to be surprised by a denied claim.


6. GO TO DENTAL SCHOOL

To save money on routine dental care, head to campus. Many dental schools have clinics where students clean your teeth, fill your cavities, mold your crown and more (under a professor's supervision) for less than you'd pay at your own dentist.

Contact your state dental society to find a school clinic near you.


7. READ YOUR MEDICAL BILLS

About 80% of doctor and hospital bills contain errors, according to Medical Billing Advocates of America. And those mistakes can cost you. It can be something as simple as the wrong billing code, wrong account number or incomplete information.

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If you need help, the Patient Advocate Foundation can review your medical bill for free.


8. BUY DISCOUNT GLASSES ONLINE

You'll easily spend between $150 and $500 for a pair of eyeglasses at the optical shop. But at online retailers such as 39DollarGlasses.com and EyeBuyDirect.com, you can buy a good set for less than $50.

You'll need your prescription (by law your ophthalmologist or optometrist is required to give it to you), and you'll plug in some other measurements to ensure a proper fit. And both sites have decent return policies if you aren't satisfied.


9. USE A FLEXIBLE-SPENDING ACCOUNT

Your employer may allow you to set aside pretax dollars to pay for medical costs not covered by insurance. You can use the money for expenses such as therapy, contact lenses, insurance co-payments and over-the-counter drugs. Why pay for these things with after-tax money when Uncle Sam will subsidize your purchase?

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Use our tool to figure out how much money you should stash in your FSA.


10. GET CHEAP OR FREE DRUGS

You can save a bundle by getting the generic version of prescription and over-the-counter drugs instead of the name brand, when available. Many pharmacies, including those at Target and Wal-Mart, offer $4 generics.

You can also get free samples of prescription drugs from your doctor. This can save you a little money and give you a chance to try out the drug to see if there are any side effects. And you can get free antibiotics at some pharmacies, including those at Giant, Stop & Shop, Publix, Meijer and Wegmans. You can also get free prenatal vitamins at Meijer and Schnucks.


11. KICK YOUR BAD HABITS

Prevention really is the best medicine, both for your health and your wallet. Quit your smoking, tanning or junk-food habits and you could save hundreds of dollars each year. Not to mention the money you'll save on doctor bills in the long run.

Eating healthy, exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, and brushing and flossing your teeth can go a long way toward saving money, reducing stress and living better.

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