Medical care is an expense that countless Americans contend with each year, and even those who have insurance struggle to keep up with their bills. In fact, medical debt is the No. 1 source of bankruptcy filings in the country, and the problem doesn't seem to be getting better anytime soon.
It's not shocking, then, to learn that some folks are willing to go to extremes to keep their medical costs as manageable as possible. For more than 25% of U.S. adults, however, that meant skipping necessary medical treatment last year, according to the Federal Reserve Board.
If you're looking to save money on healthcare, you should know that there are ways to go about it that don't involve skimping on the services you need. Here's how to keep your medical bills to a minimum -- without compromising your health in the process.
1. Understand your benefits
You might think you understand how your current health plan works, but are you really sure you won't be charged a fortune to undergo a certain diagnostic test or see a provider who's out of network? It's estimated that only 52% of U.S. workers truly understand their health benefits, so if you're fuzzy on certain policies, call the number on the back of your card and speak to a live person about them. Furthermore, be sure to understand what your deductible is and what referrals or preauthorization you need before seeing certain providers or undergoing specific procedures.
2. Shop around for better insurance
You might assume that a good way to keep your healthcare costs down is to buy less expensive insurance. But paying a higher premium might buy you superior coverage and a lower deductible, which is why it pays to explore your options if you're not getting a group health plan through work. It could be the case that paying $100 more per month in premiums than what you're currently forking over slashes your deductible by $3,000 or saves you $2,000 in services covered by your new plan but not your old one, so do that legwork before settling on an insurer.
3. Be smart about prescriptions
If you take recurring prescriptions, you have several options for cutting their costs. First, look into ordering 90-day supplies rather than renewing month after month. This might save you a nice chunk of time, as well as money.
Similarly, talk to your doctor about taking generics rather than paying a small fortune for brand-name drugs. Finally, don't be shy about asking for samples, especially when you're talking about a medication your plan won't cover or considers top tier (meaning, subject to the highest possible copayment). Medical offices get samples from pharmaceutical reps all the time and if you let it be known that you could use the break, a kind nurse might throw a month's supply your way,
4. Sign up for a tax-advantaged healthcare account
While signing up for a flexible spending account (FSA) or health savings account (HSA) won't lower your medical bills per se, you'll save money by virtue of funding those accounts with pre-tax dollars. With an FSA, you can allocate up to $2,650 per year to pay for things like medications, office visit copays, non-cosmetic dental services, and prescription eyeglasses. Because that money goes in tax-free, you shave a nice sum off your tax bill. The only catch is that you have to use up your funds completely by the time your plan year ends or risk forfeiting your balance.
With an HSA, you can contribute up to $3,450 for the year as an individual or $6,900 at the family level. Once again, that money goes in tax-free, but unlike an FSA, the money in your HSA can be invested so that it grows into a larger sum. You need to be enrolled in a high-deductible plan to qualify for an HSA and you can't be receiving health coverage through Medicare.
There are plenty of things you can do to lower your medical bills, but avoiding the services you need shouldn't be one of them. Doing so, in fact, puts you at risk of racking up higher bills by virtue of letting minor health problems escalate. But money aside, it never pays to put yourself in danger from a health perspective, so if all else fails, talk to your providers about financing whatever services or treatments you need or receiving them at a lower cost. You never know who might be willing to work with you as a patient, so it pays to ask the question before compromising your well-being.