But you can save money on medical care without harming your health, experts say. Follow these tips to trim your health care expenses by hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars.
1. Ask Questions
"Doctor, is this test really necessary?"
It's not always easy to question your doctor. But if money is tight, and you're worried about the added cost of an exam, it's important to speak up, says Davis Liu, MD. Liu is a family doctor with the Permanente Medical Group in California. He's the author of The Thrifty Patient: Vital Insider Tips for Saving Money and Staying Healthy.
"The best way to save money if a doctor does recommend a test is to ask, 'Why?'" Liu says. Is the test necessary for the doctor to make a diagnosis? Can it safely be postponed while you wait to see if your symptoms improve?
"Most diagnoses can be determined by doctors listening and taking a good patient history and then a physical exam," Liu says. "The testing is helpful if the diagnosis isn't clear and more than one possibility remains."
2. Compare Prices
With the rising cost of health care it pays to shop around, says Jeffrey Rice, MD.
Rice is chief executive officer of Healthcare Blue Book. Healthcare Blue Book is a free online consumer guide that helps people determine fair prices in their area for health care products and services.
"The most important thing is that patients understand the cost of their care before they get their care," Rice says. "Most people who have insurance think that if they stay in-network they're going to get the network discount and it doesn't matter where they go" for their care. "It absolutely matters."
"In-network" refers to a list of health care providers who have reached agreements with your insurance company on how much they'll charge for their services. You generally will pay less for providers on that list.
But it still pays to compare prices within the list. For example, insurers often pay an allowed amount of between $500 and $3,000 for the same MRI, Rice says. "There are huge price variations, and you really need to be careful to not be overcharged."
3. Take Advantage of Online Tools
In a medical emergency, you call 911, period. But if it's not an emergency, could you go to an urgent care center, a store clinic, or a community clinic?
"Actually, the better question is: When do you seek medical care and when do you not need to?" Liu says.
This doesn't mean you should take chances with your health. But online tools can help you decide when it's safe to treat yourself or when to seek medical care.
When you do need medical care, walk-in clinics such as those at pharmacy chain stores "can do basic medical care quickly and possibly at less cost than traditional urgent care centers," Liu says.
4. Switch to Generic Drugs
Consider switching to generic medications when possible. The FDA says generic drugs use the same active ingredients and work the same way in the body as brand-name drugs, but they cost 30% to 80% less.
"Generic medications are safe and equally effective as more expensive, newer medications," Liu says.
Other ways to save money on medicines:
- Check to see whether you are eligible for drug assistance programs in your state.
- Check with the company that makes your medicine to see if you qualify for financial assistance.
- Shop around your neighborhood or legitimate online pharmacies for the best prices on prescription drugs.
Liu suggests looking into the $4 generic drugs offered at some national chain stores.
Lower-priced medications are sometimes offered online, but you need to be careful about illegal web sites that sell unsafe drugs. The FDA web site has information that can help you stay clear of risky Internet purchases.
5. Talk With Your Doctor About Pill Splitting
Some people save money by splitting pills in half. Here's how this method works.
Let's say your doctor wants you to take 10 milligrams (mg) of a certain prescription drug. It's possible that the cost of buying a supply of 10-mg pills is the same as buying the same number of 20-mg pills.
If that's the case, your doctor can prescribe the 20-mg pills and you can cut them in half. That way, you'll have twice as many pills for the same price.
But pill splitting can be risky. Some tablets -- because of their size, shape, ingredients, or design -- cannot safely be split. Capsules and time-released drugs, for example, should always be taken whole.
The FDA and the American Medical Association advise against pill splitting unless it is specified in the drug's labeling.
Always check with your doctor first about splitting pills to make sure it's safe.