Hidden Money in Healthcare


Even if enrolled in an employer-sponsored health care program, Americans are still stretched to pay out of pocket medical expenses. A recent survey in the Journal of Health Affairs reports that 25 million Americans are “under-insured,” meaning their out-of-pocket medical expenses cost more than 10% of their income.  

While the country’s current health care system is arguably flawed, Americans do have cheaper options when it comes to paying for their health needs – options that won’t necessarily diminish quality of care.   “People think that [medical expenses] are almost beyond their control - somewhat like taxes,” says Tracey Baker, author of Navigating Your Health Benefits For Dummies and contributor to “But wise decisions can make real dollar savings.” 

Baker describes six ways to curb some of your health care costs and potentially save up to $4,000 a year.

1. Mail-Order It.
Companies like Express-Scripts, Caremark and Wal-Mart (WMT) offer to send prescriptions in the mail, but few of us take them up on their offer.  In 2006 less than 7% of prescription drugs were purchased via mail order, according to the National Association of Chain Drug Stores.  Meanwhile, larger health plans usually offer three months of prescriptions for the price of a two-month co-pay.  If you spend $50 a month, that’s a $200 annual savings.

2. Shop Generic.
“You’re paying an average $85 more for name-brand,” says Baker.  By switching just one monthly prescription from a brand name drug to a generic, you could save more than $1,000 a year.  Not sure your drug has a generic? Ask your doctor or pharmacist.

3. Don’t Neglect Your Network.
When people change jobs, they often forget to double check if their old physician is in their new health plan’s approved network. That’s a costly mistake, says Baker.  For example, getting knee surgery with a doctor outside your network could cost as much as $1500 more if you go out-of-network.  If you can’t bear leaving your favorite dentist, ask if he or she will join your new network.  

4. Pay Your Doctor an E-Visit
If it’s just general information or advice you’re seeking, like how often to take a certain prescription, or whether it’s safe to take two different over-the-counter drugs in the same day, log on to your doc’s Web site, or give a quick call. That way you’ll pocket the co-payment – a savings of up to $20 a visit – not to mention, gas.

5.  Enroll in a Wellness Program.
Corporate America and health care providers are increasingly rewarding workers for healthy behaviors like quitting smoking or regularly exercising. Some 46% of companies currently provide wellness plans, based on a report by Watson Wyatt and the National Business Group on Health. In 2009, that figure’s expected to jump to 70%.  Likewise, healthcare companies, including Humana and United Health, offer wellness incentives. Humana's HealthyMiles program, for example, allows participants to earn gift cards from various retailers just for working out.  They can earn up to $600 a year.  Check with your HR department or you’re your existing health care provider for more information.

6. Don’t Sit On Your FSA.
Every year people leave some 14%, or an average $723, of their Flexible Spending Accounts unused. That’s because we either overestimate how much we’ll spend on medical and pharmaceutical expenses or we just forget to use that reserved cash. The big problem, of course, is that we don’t get that money back. It’s a use or lose scenario. When filling out your FSA forms for 2009, consider adjusting down if need be, says Baker.  And if you have any leftover FSA cash this year, get your money’s worth by stocking up on vitamins, band-aids, cough syrup and other qualifying purchases that won’t necessarily expire in a year.

Catch more of Farnoosh’s advice on Real Simple. Real Life. on TLC, Friday nights at 8 p.m.

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