17 Smart Hacks for Slashing Health Care Costs

17 Smart Hacks for Slashing Health Care Costs

This post originally appeared on All You.

Save on Doctor Visits

The costs for appointments and procedures can be more flexible than you think.

Get a Bid
You'd have no issue getting estimates from three handymen before fixing a sink, right? You can do the same with a physician if you're paying by cash or credit card (a possibility for those without health insurance or those with a high deductible). On medibid.com you can enter basic health information and the type of doctor or procedure you need (a colonoscopy, say), then within about a week you receive bids from doctors who are willing to do the work. Many include testing and even follow-up visits in their fee because they still make more than they would from an insurer's reimbursement. Physicians' qualifications are listed on the site, but it's also a good idea to check for patient reviews on Yelp and zocdoc.com. After deciding to accept the offer, you can call the doctor directly to arrange your appointment. Note: MediBid charges $25 to submit your procedure for a bid, but that cost is usually more than offset by what you save overall.

Check on a Cheaper Option
If you have a recurring back or joint injury, ask the doctor whether an X-ray (cost: about $200) would yield the same information as a pricier MRI (about $900). It's also OK to inquire whether you need a procedure at all; see a list of treatments and practices that major medical-specialty organizations say might have little or no value (based on scientific research) at choosingwisely.org.

Let Your Insurer Help
Major insurers such as Aetna and United Healthcare now have Web tools that allow members to look up pricing for procedures and doctors in their area, so they can choose one with a lower cost—or set aside the appropriate amount in their flexible spending account (FSA) or health savings account (HSA) every year.

Don't Stray By Mistake
Although it's easy to pick a physician under your insurer's umbrella, you can unintentionally find yourself going out of network at the hospital. Even if the facility and surgeon are in network, your stay might include visits from an anesthesiologist and specialty doctors who aren't covered. Call the hospital ahead of time and ask who is covered, and request that you see only those doctors. Also, when there, you should ideally have a family member or patient advocate help you double-check, especially if you are medicated and not thinking clearly.

Think: Location, Location, Location
The cost of a given procedure at different hospitals and medical centers near you might vary by thousands of dollars, and those differences usually aren't tied to medical outcomes. In Austin, Texas, for example, cataract surgery could cost anywhere from $3,500 to $13,000. Visit newchoicehealth.com, which lets you see prices in your area (which are derived from Medicare data) and receive quotes from specific facilities for the work you need.

Pop Into a Clinic
Have a condition that's straightforward, such as pinkeye, strep throat or an ear infection? You often can get care for 30 percent to 50 percent less than you'd pay at your general practitioner's office by going to an in-store clinic, like those at CVS, Target and Walmart. (Bonus: You're apt to see someone that day, rather than having to make an appointment for later.) If you live in New York City, for example, going to your regular doctor for an earache would cost about $160, compared with $75 at CVS MinuteClinic. Retail clinics, which might accept insurance, are usually staffed by nurse practitioners, not MDs, so they aren't good for general checkups, chronic health conditions or very worrisome symptoms (like chest pain, which should send you to the ER). If going the retail-clinic route, ask for a record of your visit so you can bring it to your next visit with your GP.

Get a Deeper Discount
Ask the person at your doctor's billing office if she would be willing to knock an additional 10 percent or more off the fee if you pay up front by check instead of credit card or payment plan. Because doctors lose about 3 percent to credit card fees—and more for patients who ultimately don't pay—some will agree.

Strike a Bargain
Doctors and hospitals already accept a deeply discounted rate from insurers. You can use that information to negotiate when you're paying out of pocket. To learn what doctors in your area typically get from insurers, search for an ailment or treatment plus your zip code at healthcarebluebook.com, a privately owned source—like Kelley Blue Book for cars—that gets its information from employers, insurance companies and health care providers. Then ask the doctor to match that rate.

Pay Less for Medications

Add these websites, apps and strategies to your arsenal and save big.

Stick With a Basic
Older treatments that work just as well as newer ones often are cheaper or covered at a better rate by insurers. Drugcompare.destinationrx.com can suggest alternative meds; talk to your doctor to see if you can safely make a swap.

Discover High-Quality Coupons
The GoodRx app and the website needymeds.org collect information on hundreds of coupons from manufacturers and pharmacies, increasing the chances you'll find one for the drug you take. Recently via needymeds.org, for example, you could find a $10 coupon for the asthma drug Advair, which can cost about $300 per month if you don't have insurance.

Try a Trial
Big drug makers sometimes offer free trials of medications. Recently you could get a free 30-day sample of the cholesterol-lowering drug Crestor (retail cost: about $225) by going to the manufacturer's website and filling out a simple form.

Comparison-Shop With Your Smartphone
The free apps GoodRx, LowestMed and WeRx (all Android and Apple) compare prescription-drug costs at chains. Even if you have insurance, the price might be lower than your co-pay. Sam's Club and Walmart offer some generic Rx drugs for $4, for example. Check all three apps; sometimes they find different deals.

Find the Right Discount Card
If you don't have prescription drug coverage, or you need an Rx your insurance plan won't pay for, you might be able to score a deal with a discount card, like the ones offered through AAA and AARP. You also can find free savings cards at websites such as familywize.org and needymeds.org. Just know that not all cards cover all medications, and discounts can vary greatly. Check pparx.org to find a listing of card programs.

In the fall (or sooner if you switch jobs), you'll need to sign up. These four strategies could shave hundreds off your health care spending.

1. Consider a high-deductible plan.
Most employers now offer a plan with a deductible of at least $4,068 for families ($2,190 for singles) in exchange for lower premiums. They're usually offered with a health savings account (HSA), which lets you use pretax money to pay for medical costs. Use the tool at wageworks.com/hsacalculator to see if it's a good deal for you.

2. Go separate ways from your spouse.
Many companies are increasing the cost of adding your partner to your plan. See whether the premiums and deductibles for each of you individually add up to less than family coverage.

3. Use your FSA.
If your employer offers flexible spending accounts, you can stash up to $2,500 of pretax money to pay for out-of-pocket costs. (You cannot contribute to both an FSA and an HSA in the same year.)

4. Grab wellness incentives.
According to a Towers Watson/National Business Group survey, two thirds of companies offer employees rewards to encourage participation in health programs.

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