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6 Tips to Spend Less on Health Care

Many people are shouldering a larger portion of their health care expenses. But using a few key strategies can cut your costs.

April 2012

Spend less on drugs

Switching to generic drugs is one of the easiest ways to save -- especially now that some big-name medications, such as Lipitor, have gone generic (see Brand-Name Lipitor at Generic Prices). Some brand-name drugs don’t have a generic clone but do have a therapeutic equivalent, which is in the same class of drugs but is a little different chemically. You can look up generics and therapeutic equivalents at www.drx.com (or through your insurer’s Web site) and also see how much you can save by using mail order. Ask your doctor about lower-cost alternatives.

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Spend less at the hospital

Physicians often work at outpatient surgery centers as well as hospitals, and the cost of treatment can vary widely by location even though you’re getting care from the same doctor. Before scheduling a procedure, ask whether the doctor works at any other facilities. Then call the hospitals or outpatient centers to compare costs. Fees for the doctor and the anesthesiologist might be the same, but you’re likely to save on the facility fee.

Spend less on tests and x-rays

Different facilities charge vastly different prices for x-rays and tests. The average in-network cost of an MRI at a hospital tends to be twice the cost at an independent radiology facility. When doctors order a lab test or an x-ray, they write a requisition form, and just like a prescription, you’re free to fill it at any facility. Many insurers offer Web tools that show costs for various facilities under your plan, and you can look up fair prices for medical tests at www.healthcarebluebook.com.

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Spend less on emergency care

If you don’t need to go to an emergency room, you can save hundreds of dollars by getting treatment at an urgent-care center or convenience-care clinic (such as Minute Clinic at CVS). Some insurers boost the coinsurance rate for non-emergency visits to the ER and waive the coinsurance payment entirely for convenience-care centers. Or you may be able to get free advice from your insurer’s 24-hour nurse hotline.

Spend less on preventive care

Make the most of new laws that require insurers and Medicare to provide certain preventive procedures, such as blood-pressure and cholesterol tests, mammograms and colonoscopies, flu shots, routine vaccines and well-baby visits—without copays or deductibles (see www.healthcare.gov for the list). Plus, many employers offer incentives to participate in a healthy-living program -- for example, a discount on health premiums if you enroll in a tobacco-cessation program.

Health care spending accounts

Health care spending accounts let you designate the amount to be deducted from your salary each payday, starting at the begin­ning of the year. For now, your employer sets the maximum amount you can contribute (in 2013, the maximum for all plans will be $2,500); your contributions avoid federal, state and local income tax as well as Social Se­curity and Medicare taxes. The money can be withdrawn as re­imbursement for qualified health ex­penses, such as co-payments, eyeglasses and contact lenses, and the cost of prescription drugs. (As of 2011, you can no longer use money in the account for nonprescription drugs.) If you don’t use the money by the end of the plan year or, with some em­ployers, by March 15 of the following year, you lose what­ever’s left in the account.

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