Ways to Save Health Care

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Maybe your health insurance premiums have skyrocketed since last year. Maybe your employer is shifting more medical fees onto you. Or perhaps a new diagnosis, emergency-room visit, or other life change is leaving you with more health-related expenses than you ever expected.

For all of these reasons and then some, Americans are spending more on their health than at any time in history. The good news? There are ways to start saving on medical expenses without compromising the quality of your care.

Shop around. All health insurance plans are not created equal. In fact, according to a National Committee for Quality Assurance study, providers vary widely in their levels of service, approaches to preventative care, and accessibility of treatment. For this reason, it's important to compare plans before you choose one. Even if you've had an insurance plan for years, don't stop shopping to make sure your benefits and costs are competitive.

Get healthy. It may sound like a no-brainer, but the healthier you are, the less you'll have to spend on health care. More than 70 percent of employers currently offer, or plan to offer, financial incentives to employees who participate in company wellness initiatives, reports the National Business Group on Health. In addition, smoking can add hundreds of dollars to your annual health-care costs, but once you've been smoke-free for a year, some insurers will reverse the charges.

Invest in an HSA. According to experts, one of the biggest mistakes people make when it comes to health care is not investing in a tax-advantaged health savings account (HSA). With an HSA, people who are enrolled in a high deductable health plan (HDHP) put a certain amount of money from each paycheck into an account for future medical expenses. The money isn't taxed, and if you don't use it all in a given year, you can simply carry it over into the next year.

Invest in an FSA. Like an HSA, a flexible spending account (FSA) offers a tax-advantaged way to save for medical expenses. In this case, though, you don't have to be enrolled in an HDHP to reap the benefits. However, there is a "use it or lose it" provision, so you'll have to spend the money you save within the year. In both cases, be sure to check with your plan to make sure your expenses are approved by the IRS as a qualified medical expense.

Think free. If your health insurance plan offers free exams or wellness services, it's important that you take advantage of them. These may include potentially life-saving screenings, such mammograms or prostate specific antigen tests (PSAs), as well as exams to monitor your blood pressure or cholesterol levels. If you don't have insurance, seek out neighborhood screening programs.

Save on prescriptions. The cost of prescriptions is continuing to rise, but there are several ways to save on medications. Be sure to ask your doctor for samples, especially if it's a one-time treatment. For longer-term therapy, request generics, and shop around to compare costs at local drugstores and through mail-order pharmacies.

Plan ahead. All too often, people wait until they're older or until they really need health insurance to invest in it. But not surprisingly, the young and healthy get the lowest rates. So try to get a policy while you're still young. That way, you'll pay a much lower premium and prevent costly emergency medical expenses that could deplete your savings down the road.


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