How to reduce your health care costs

Five ways to control expenses while protecting your health

Getting affordable medical care is a challenge for many people. Fortunately, you may be able to reduce your health care costs by taking a more active role in your medical care and maintaining healthy habits. Here are five tips to get you started.

1. Compare costs of several medical providers. The costs of procedures, treatments and medications can vary widely by provider. When your doctor recommends a treatment, ask how much it will cost you, and feel free to shop around or negotiate for a discount. Sites such as Healthcare Blue Book compare prices charged by hospitals, physicians and labs.

If you're paying some or all of a bill out of your own pocket, you're likely to be charged much more than an insurer or Medicare would pay, so consider asking for the insurer's discount. Other simple strategies for reducing health care costs include carefully scrutinizing your hospital bills for costly errors, avoiding emergency room visits unless you are facing a true emergency and asking your doctor or pharmacist about generic versions of your current medications.

2. Familiarize yourself with your insurance plan. Whenever possible, choose providers that participate in your insurer's network, including all members of your surgical or treatment team. Study carefully what is covered under your plan. If your physician suggests a test or treatment that isn't covered, ask about alternatives that are. If you think you're covered but your insurer rejects your claim and sends you a big bill, you have the right to appeal. Call your insurer to learn about the appeal process and any deadlines for filing your appeal, and make sure your appeal is well researched so you can substantiate your claim.

3. Consider a high-deductible plan. High-deductible plans offer lower premiums in exchange for higher deductibles. Preventive care is usually fully covered, and if you monitor your spending carefully you could save money overall. Many high-deductible plans feature Health Savings Accounts, which can provide considerable tax savings on your health spending: deposits may be tax deductible when contributed and are tax-free when withdrawn for qualified medical expenses. (Flexible Spending Accounts also provide tax savings but with traditional plans.)

4. Eat right and exercise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than three-quarters of health care costs in America are due to chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and arthritis. Fortunately, many chronic conditions can be prevented or minimized by eating right and exercising regularly - and thus reducing your overall health care costs.

The American Dietetic Association has information on eating right, while the CDC provides guidelines for physical activity. If your employer sponsors a wellness program, sign up: these plans typically offer discounted gym memberships, weight-loss programs or health coaching.

5. See your doctor regularly. Your doctor can be an important partner in keeping you healthy over the long run. Regular physical exams can help identify problems before they become costly or disabling. Your physician will also notify you about key health screenings, such as mammograms or colonoscopies, which are usually much less expensive than the serious conditions they can prevent.

What's next? How much should I spend on key categories?

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