Save Money on Health Care with 10 Tips from Bills.com

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Avoid medical debt, manage health care costs

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While legislators look for a way to make health care more affordable for all, paying for medical care is in our own hands

Health care is in the headlines these days as President Obama and Congress attempt to hammer out a way to make health care costs more affordable for Americans, who cite medical bills as one of the leading causes of debt and bankruptcy.

While the politicians debate, Ethan Ewing, president of Bills.com, has put together these 10 ways to save on medical care:

1.    Keep up to date with checkups - Do not skimp on care to save a few dollars, especially if a health condition requires regular monitoring. Also be sure children get all necessary vaccinations. How to save: Many insurance plans cover well-child and preventive care visits with a low or no co-payment. Or look into health care clinics (such as those offered at some drug store chains) for discount exams and vaccinations.

2.    Ask for a discount - Some doctors give patients a cash discount for paying out of pocket. Patients with health insurance should be sure the physicians they see are in the network for a deeper discount on fees. How to save: Talk to the manager of patient accounts about the situation. Many providers and facilities will offer discounts of 10 percent to 50 percent for those who have lost their jobs or who can pay cash up front.

3.    Save with a FSA - Anyone whose employer offers a flexible spending account (FSA) should take advantage of it. An FSA allows employees to have money deducted, pretax, from their paychecks for medical care. For a $1,000 annual deduction, employees might save up to $350 (depending on the tax bracket). How to save: Look at canceled checks, bills or credit card statements to determine how much you spent on medical care last year. Then request withholding of about 80 percent of that amount, to be safe. However, if you do not spend the full amount deducted, you will lose it.

4.    Save on medications - Ask doctor if a generic medication will work as well as a brand-name one. Also investigate any possible discounts, from insurance to AARP to AAA. Mail-order pharmacies sometimes allow customers to order several months of medications at a big discount. How to save: Look at all the options, including discount medications from warehouse club and discount/chain stores, to find the best deal on needed medicines.

5.    Wear a helmet - Follow the same rules children should follow: Wear a helmet while on wheels. That includes skates, scooters, bicycles, motorcycles and skateboards. Also protect heads from injury when skiing or snowboarding, horseback riding, rock climbing or engaging in other potentially risky activities. How to save: A safety helmet costs less than $30. The average cost of care for a moderate brain injury is nearly $1 million.

6.    Get the flu vaccine - A flu shot or inhaled flu mist can avoid a bout of nasty illness, with days or even weeks of associated time off work. How to save: Flu shots typically cost about $25. Save more by seeking out a local nonprofit organization that counts part of the fee as a tax-deductible charitable donation.

7.    Read medical bills - Some experts estimate that eight of 10 medical bills contain errors or inflated charges. How to save: Ask for an itemized bill and read it carefully. Protest any erroneous charges to negotiate a lower fee. Review payments from insurance providers for accuracy, too, since providers often require patients to pay any difference between their usual charges and what the insurance company pays.

8.    Stay trim. A study released last week claims that obesity accounts for 9 percent of all U.S. medical costs. In addition, an obese person has $1,429 per year more medical costs, or about 42 percent more, than someone of normal weight. How to save: Eat moderately and exercise to keep body mass index below 30.

9.    Avoid the Medicare "doughnut hole" - Medicare-eligible patients with Part D prescription coverage must watch for the coverage gap, also known as the "doughnut hole." After patients spend a certain amount on prescription drugs, they must pay all drug costs out of pocket until they reach a higher level of prescription expenses. Currently, Medicare Part D coverage stops at $2,700 and resumes when the patient's out-of-pocket cost reaches $6,154 per year. To make things worse, Medicare applies the entire retail cost of drugs -- not just the patient's co-payment -- to the coverage limits. How to save: Ask physicians to prescribe lower-cost or generic medications whenever possible. Less-expensive drugs can help postpone entering into the doughnut hole and make the coverage gap more affordable.

10.    Consider medical tourism - It sounds exotic, but it is no longer just for jetsetters. In 2007, 1.5 million people traveled just to Thailand for medical care. Even some U.S. insurers are coming on board to allow Americans to travel overseas to receive more cost-effective medical care such as knee replacement or other costly procedure How to save: Many insurance companies do not cover overseas procedures, so ask first. For those who must pay out of pocket, traveling might be worthwhile. Be sure to go to a medical facility accredited by the Joint Commission International to help ensure reliable, quality care. Medical tourism companies can help locate a reliable provider, but be sure to proceed very cautiously.

"While legislators look for a way to make health care more affordable for all, paying for medical care is in our own hands," said Ewing. "By knowing how to save, you can make a difference in the cost of care for you and your family."

About Bills.com
Based in San Mateo, Calif., Bills.com is a free one-stop portal where consumers can educate themselves about complex personal finance issues and comparison shop for products and services including credit cards, debt consolidation, insurance, mortgages and other loans. Bills.com holds the No. 257 spot on the Inc. 500 list for 2008, and the No. 3 spot on Entrepreneur Magazine's Hot 100 list of the fastest-growing U.S. companies.

Bills.com and its sister companies, Freedom Debt Relief and Freedom Tax Relief, are wholly owned subsidiaries of Freedom Financial Network, LLC. The company has served more than 50,000 customers nationwide since 2002 while managing more than $1 billion in consumer debt. Its RSS feed is available here.

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Aimee Bennett
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