Controlling Health Care Costs

Controlling Health Care Costs
Eileen St. Pierre, The Everyday Financial Planner

The new health insurance exchanges known as The Marketplace opened last week (go to Healthcare.gov to open an account and sign up for coverage). With such big changes coming to health care, it’s only natural to feel out of control – like we were ever in control before? This seemed like a good time to write a column on what we as individuals could do to control our health care costs.

This time of year I live in a Benadryl-induced haze because of a stupid weed that loves growing in the open prairie. At some point, we need to see the doctor. While there is no escaping the charges that come along with the visit, paying some extra attention to your personal health and the billing process will help you better manage those costs.

Ok, let’s first get the personal lecture out of the way. Following a healthy diet and regular exercise routine can add years to your life, and reduce your risk of contracting serious chronic conditions such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and certain types of cancers. Poor health is expensive. Preventive care is always the best medicine, and will save you money in the long run.

Of course, no matter how many vegetables you eat or miles you log on the treadmill, accidents and illnesses happen. Some of us are just plain clumsy. I broke my elbow playing tennis in high school jumping over the net doing a really bad John McEnroe impression.

  • Make sure you fully understand your health insurance coverage, including applicable co-pays, deductibles, and the use of in- and out-of-network doctors.
  • If your doctor orders a lot of tests make sure he explains to you why the tests are needed and how the results will be used.
  • Don’t be afraid to call your insurance company and ask questions.

Study your medical bills closely before writing the check or whipping out the credit card. The code that’s assigned to a certain procedure will determine the cost. For example, one doctor of ours considered cleaning wax out of ears as surgery. But another doctor coded it as a simple ear wash and did not charge us for an office visit on top of it. The difference? About $100. According to Medical Billing Advocates of America, eight out of 10 medical bills contain errors.

If you have to go to the hospital, request an itemized bill that shows exactly what you’re being charged.

  • One of the most common errors is bundled items that also are billed separately. For example, shampoo, soap, toilet paper, and toothbrushes could also be listed as room and board.
  • Look for upcharges or more expensive services than were actually performed, and compare the bill to the explanation of benefits (EOB) provided by the insurance company.

If you find an error on the bill, call the doctor or hospital, or if you have a question about the EOB, contact the insurance company. You have the option of asking your doctor if she ordered a service that appears on your bill. You can’t be charged for something your doctor didn’t order in writing. I know it can be time consuming and frustrating to get the bill corrected. But if no one says anything, health care costs will continue going up.

Once you are satisfied the charges are accurate, consider your payment options.

  • If it is a sizable expense that you will have a hard time paying in one lump sum, ask if there is a payment plan.
  • If you can pay the entire amount at one time, ask the doctor’s office or hospital if there’s a discount for doing so.
  • Use a credit card that will give you rewards back – just make sure you pay the balance off when the bill arrives. Earning a free dinner at Red Lobster can take some of the sting out of paying medical bills.

Visit my Health Care Reform page for more information.