Millions of seniors rely on Medicare to cover their healthcare needs in retirement, and while the program is designed to make medical care more affordable, it's still a huge burden for those limited to a fixed income. In fact, healthcare costs the average retiree $499 a month, and when you consider the various deductibles, co-pays, and premiums associated with Medicare, that number makes sense.

Unfortunately, the stress of costly medical care can lead many seniors to make poor decisions about their health, thereby compromising not only their physical well-being but their finances as well. In fact, 19% of Medicare enrollees avoid or delay procedures due to the cost involved, according to new data from HealthMarkets. But that's a mistake that could come back to haunt them in a very big way.

Older man coughing

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

The problem with putting off healthcare needs

From a medical standpoint, ignoring a health issue, or delaying treatment for it, can easily result in a dangerous situation. Imagine you have a cough you can't shake, only you don't want to fork over an expensive co-pay for a doctor visit or chest X-ray. Well, what happens when that cough evolves into full-blown pneumonia? Suddenly you're dealing with a very serious medical issue, and all because you didn't address the problem earlier on.

Delaying treatment for health issues can hurt you financially as well. Think about the cost of an office visit co-pay and compare it to that of an extended hospital stay (which, in the pneumonia scenario, you're probably looking at if you're older). Chances are, you'll wind up spending well more if you allow the problem to escalate.

A better way to save money on healthcare

Avoiding or delaying medical treatment might help you keep your healthcare costs more manageable for a bit, but in the long run, it's not a wise path. So rather than risk your health, take smarter steps to keep your medical costs down.

First, enroll in Medicare on time. You get a seven-month window to sign up for Medicare that begins three months before the month of your 65th birthday, and ends three months after it. Signing up too late could cause your Part B premiums to rise, so pay attention to when you need to enroll.

Next, be smart about choosing a Part D drug plan. Different plans offer varying coverage, so the best way to determine which is right for you is to take a look at each plan's formulary and see how the medications you take fare under it. It may be the case that paying a higher premium for a plan that gives better coverage for your medications saves you money overall.

Furthermore, if you're smart about managing your prescriptions, you might lower their cost. Ordering medications in bulk, for example, is often more economical than renewing prescriptions month after month. Similarly, opting for generics over brand-name drugs (after getting an OK from your physician, of course) can slash your co-pays substantially.

Another thing you might consider is a Medicare Advantage plan, primarily because these plans have the potential to be cheaper than original Medicare, all the while offering a wider range of coverage. Remember, traditional Medicare won't pay for common services like dental, hearing, and vision, whereas you might have all of these items covered under an Advantage plan.

While it doesn't hurt to actively take steps to reduce your healthcare spending, avoiding or delaying treatment for medical issues isn't the way to do it. So the next time you can't seem to shake a nagging cough, or you have a weird rash, fever, or ache that just doesn't go away, see your doctor. Remember, too, that Medicare enrollees are entitled to a free well visit each year, so don't be negligent in scheduling yours. Regular visits might help you not only avoid health problems, but save you money in the long run.

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