To save money: Take control of your health care
by Audrey Thomasson
Health insurance premiums have increased at more than three times the rate of inflation for 10 years. Medical bills cost the average household $2,976 last year, according to the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Doctors and the health-care system are not always perfect and errors occur. Here are some tips on how to take an active role in your health care and stand up for yourself while taking some of the pain out of your wallet.
- After office hours, use an urgent care or retail clinic. If you have a serious but non life-threatening issue, such as respiratory infection or minor wounds and lacerations, consider going to an urgent care facility rather than the hospital emergency room. Think $40 compared to hundreds of dollars at a hospital. (Clinic costs can vary depending on facility and malady. An administration fee may be added if you are not already a patient.)
- Find the best deal on prescription drugs. If you don’t have insurance coverage for prescriptions, call around to determine which store has the best price. Don’t expect the national brand stores to beat out local shops. For example, a recent check revealed that a brand antibiotic sold by national chains ranged from $50 to $115 while at local pharmacies such as White Stone, Main Street and Marshall’s it ranged from $25 to $40. Dr. Susan Sanders of White Stone Pharmacy advises consumers not to be afraid to explain the situation to the doctor or pharmacist. “Doctors don’t always realize how much the drugs cost,” she said.
You can also compare prices with reputable online pharmacies such as costco.com, drugstore.com, and familymeds.com. Free or reduced prescription programs are available to individuals typically with an annual income below $20,000, or a couple below $31,000. Check websites such as myrxadvocate.com for more information.
- Try the Family Maternity Center of the Northern Neck. Opening in May 2010, the center will provide all routine women’s care from PAP smears to menopause counseling and cancer screening. Expect a nearly 50 percent savings on vaginal births at about $4,200 over a hospital cost of $8,000, according to center officials. The center is applying to all health insurance companies and will be a Medicaid provider. Nurse practitioners and midwives will provide cost effective care for all women. Call 435-7005 or 435-3504.
- Head to a dental school for routine care. Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry at 520 North 12th Street in Richmond is staffed by second- and third-year students and offers discounts of 50 percent off the going rate. There may be a long wait for available appointments. Call patient registration at 804-828-9095; at the prompt, press 0.
- Dental discount plans. If you have a big family, need a lot of dental work or if you are over 50 (when gum problems tend to occur), consider a discount dental plan. For $100 to $200 a year, you’ll get discounts of 10 to 60 percent on services and treatments. Visit dentalplans.com to find a plan or dentist. You may have to travel as far as Hayes or Warsaw for care.
- Uninsured could be paying more in medical costs. Insurance carriers negotiate lower rates, so if you walk into the doctor’s office or hospital without coverage you will pay more. Depending on your medical needs, consider an insurance policy with a hefty deductible to keep monthly premiums lower while benefiting from those negotiated rates. And don’t be afraid to let the doctor or dentist know your situation and ask how to cut expenses.
- Insured savings. Raise your health insurance deductible and save $2,700 a year, according to Elisabeth Leamy in her book, Save Big.
- Check your hospital bill. Ask for an itemized bill and review the charges. Studies indicate some 80 percent of hospital bills have errors—and not in the patients’ favor.
The average bill has $600 worth of errors, according to the New York Life Insurance Company. Often the errors are a matter of humans entering the wrong code or double coding in a computer. But consumers pay the erroneous charges because they don’t know better or don’t think they can challenge them.
“People need to be their own advocate,” said Pamela Woods, an attorney, registered nurse and medical legal advocate. “You need to look out for yourself. Don’t expect the insurance company to get involved. The money comes out of your pocket either in cash or increased premiums. If you don’t understand the charges, ask the hospital to send an interpreted bill explaining the changes before you pay someone like me.”
Consumers who hire medical billing advocates to fight hospital errors and insurance companies save an average of $6,858.
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