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BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

8 ways to rein in medical bills and save on health care costs

Jan 03, 2024 10:57AM ● By Karen Telleen-Lawton

I remember my anxiety over 30 years ago when our young daughter suffered a major health issue. The doctors, the painful testing and the unknowns were all scary. What made it scarier was that our health insurance provider announced they would drop her from our plan. 

Even if you and your family have glided through life with miraculously good health, there likely comes a time when you face something other than “maintenance” health care costs. In your later working years or in retirement, it’s easy to become wary and fearful about costs that increase year after year. What can you do about your own medical costs?

1. Prioritize your health

The most important cost-savings advice I have for you is to take care of your health. Whether you need to lose a few pounds, reduce caffeine or alcohol intake, reduce stress, get your body moving, or all of the above, tell yourself whatever motivational story you need to hear. Get your mind and body moving in the same direction. Even if your health status is beyond your control, good health habits will improve whatever prognoses you face.

2. Take advantage of your benefits

A good place to start would be the health benefits handbook from your employer or Medicare. Resist the temptation to consign them to the circular file or the bottomless pile. Your plan may be chock full of benefits that could save you money in the long run. It may also include discounts on health clubs, health advocates and so forth. Regular health screenings can nip bigger problems in the bud.

3. Choose in-network providers

Check online or in your plan handbook to determine in-network providers approved by your insurance plan. When you make an appointment, check with the medical office to make sure they are still in network for your insurance.

While you’re checking for in-network physicians, make sure you know which ambulance services and hospitals are in your network. This is the type of information we used to post by our landline phone in case of emergency. Now the common practice is to enter it on your phone. 

iPhone owners can use Apple’s preinstalled Health app. It’s as simple as clicking on Medical ID and filling in your emergency contact information. This setting can also be accessible when the screen is locked. There are free apps for non-iPhone users as well.  

4. Save money on drugs

If you take prescription drugs, talk to your physician about generic forms or similar drugs. Ask her or him whether they suggest any actions you may be able to take to improve your body’s health and reduce your subsequent need for medication.

5. Review your health coverage 

Depending on your plan, you can alter your options annually during open enrollment (some plans can be reviewed more frequently). The right health care plan for you and your family may change from year to year. For many Americans, including those who are self-employed, independent workers and employees of small companies, your best bet is often a high-deductible plan (HDHP). If you’re in good health, it can save you much more in premiums than your annual out-of-pocket costs.

6. Order prescriptions online

Nevertheless, HDHPs can sometimes sway you in the wrong direction. I endured several months of discomfort because the prescription my physician had written would have cost me several thousand dollars per year. When I finally filled the order, I discovered it was much less expensive if I paid out of pocket using online sources. As always, make sure to check out the safety and efficacy of the source before ordering.

7. Set up an FSA or HSA

Another money-saving option is to set up an FSA (flexible spending account) or an HSA (health savings account). These are used to set aside pre-tax money for upcoming health costs. Each has different rules. Your employer may even contribute money to an account which may or may not have to claimed by year-end.

8. Review medical bills for accuracy

Medical bills are complicated, which is why you may be tempted to pay them without analyzing their accuracy first. The need to understand your bills doesn’t stop with an insurance provider. You wouldn’t do this with an automobile or home remodeling bill, and it doesn’t work for medical bills either. Make whatever calls are necessary to make sure you understand the charges and follow up if you don’t think they’re accurate. If you have a major medical issue with lots of bills from lots of providers, you may consider hiring a medical bills reviewer. He or she will likely save you more than their fee.

The whole issue of health care has ballooned into a tsunami in recent decades. Fortunately, some leaders have dug in to the pitfalls of our health care system and are finding solutions. 

A hotel workers union in Boston—reportedly one of the most expensive health care markets in the country—made news for negotiating to provide no-deductible health coverage with premiums costing a small fraction of the U.S. average. Generic drugs cost $1 and the most expensive specialty drugs are $12 per prescription.

The union did this by contracting with the lesser known hospitals in the area. It was a hard sell initially, but the payoff was to keep premiums under control, putting more money into employees’ wallets. In 2019, six years after implementing the plan, the union was still paying less in medical costs per member than at the plan’s inception.

Hats off to this union for saving their members tens of thousands of dollars. Hats off to my daughter whose strict adherence to a restricted diet and regular exercise has kept her in good health for 30 years.

And hats off to each of you if you can rein in your own medical costs by paying attention to your health care plan.