Unless you're supremely healthy and/or supremely lucky, you'll probably face medical bills in the coming year. That slip and fall on the ice, a bad case of the flu or a simple strep throat can dig deeply into your wallet.
Here's a frugal tip: Right now, while you're not sick or injured, is the time to work at reducing medical costs. That goes for annual exams and any tests that accompany them as well as for that bronchitis your kid brings home from school.
For example, you might be able to save 30% off the cost of an appointment right off the bat, just by offering to pay upfront and in cash.
"Prompt-pay discounts are often in the doctor's interest because they reduce paperwork hassles and financial uncertainties. Some medical professionals offer 10 to 30 percent discounts for patients who ante up within 30 days," says Caroline Mayer of the next Avenue blog.
Mayer herself recently saved $200 on a bone-density scan. How'd she swing a deal like that?
Once again, simply by asking. Her out-of-network physician wanted $400 for the procedure, but Mayer found out she could get it done for less somewhere else. She asked for a price break, and the doctor cut the fee in half.
Win-win: She didn't have to go somewhere else, and he got $200 he would otherwise have missed.
"Doctors and dentists (hospitals, too) are used to negotiating," Mayer says.
It's best to have this discussion in advance of the visit. But if you don't and the bill you receive seems high, "you can try bargaining it down."
When good care costs too much
Suppose all medical bills seem high to you? Do a little legwork. Sites like FAIR Health, New Choice Health and Healthcare Blue Book tell you the insurance-paid rates in your region.
It helps to have the precise name of the procedure or, if possible, its billing code. Mayer notes that some procedures have more than one code (her scan had two).
Emphasize that you like the care you receive but that your financial situation requires that you save money wherever you can. If you're too embarrassed to ask the doctor directly, talk with the billing manager about discounts, Mayer says.
If your bills are tough to manage, ask about assistance from public, private or nonprofit programs. "Don't assume you won't qualify for financial aid," Mayer says, especially if you've faced a lot of medical bills lately.
More ways to cut costs
No insurance? Look for free or pay-as-you-can sources for health care:
- Government care. Investigate both state departments of public health and federally qualified health centers.
- Free-care clearinghouse. Look for help near you through the National Association of Free & Charitable Clinics.
- Women's health: Look for local chapters of the YWCA (which sponsors free mammograms and cervical cancer screenings) and Planned Parenthood (which provides some health care beyond family planning on a sliding scale basis).
- Prescription drugs. Three supermarkets -- Top Food & Drug, Meijer and Publix -- offer a number of medications for free; depending on the store, you can get prenatal vitamins, the diabetes drug Metformin, generic Lipitor, certain antibiotics and other medications. If your income is extremely limited, you might be able to get free medication through groups like NeedyMeds, the Bureau of Prescription Help, the Chronic Disease Fund and the Partnership for Prescription Assistance.
If you need dental work with a high co-pay, ask if you can pay by the month for up to one year -- and ask that this arrangement be interest-free. You never know. If your dentist agrees, be sure to hold up your end of the deal, i.e., don't be even a day late with your payments.
Finally, see if your state has a health care advocate program. Mayer notes that nonprofit groups such as the the Patient Advocate Foundation will negotiate for you, sometimes for free.
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