It’s happened to many of us: You slip and fall, or wake up in the night with some unexplained, foreboding pain. You sought medical care you needed, and now you’re being penalized with a ridiculously high bill.
The statements slowly stack on your counter, the print getting bigger, redder and angrier as time goes by. You’re feeling better, so you do the best you can to ignore them — who has an extra $1,200 lying around for a night of no sleep under fluorescent lights and an injection of Benadryl or Penicillin?
Paying the Price for Medical Care
When you finally take a deep breath and face those crazy-high bills, the bottom line can feel insurmountable. But luckily, we found some ways to help cut those high medical costs, even for care you’ve already received. You can pay less for the same treatment, from high-cost medical procedures like surgery to bills you already owe.
A little bit of time and effort might save you thousands of dollars and a negative mark on your credit score if you struggle to come up with five figure sums on the fly.
If you need help with medical bills and procedures, here are 10 ways to spend less on personal health care.
If you’ve already received the bill:
1. Negotiate Your Medical Bill
If you’re facing a staggering, scary number, you probably don’t have to pay as much as they’re asking. You can negotiate the price of treatment with your both your provider and your insurance company, and you can approach the negotiation from a number of angles.
If you simply state the total is too high for you to afford, you might be able to score a discount if you can pay a large chunk — or all — of the bill up front or in cash. Don’t be afraid to make an aggressive offer — ask if the hospital will write off 70% of your bill if you hand them 30% right now.
Even if they say no, your lowball starting move primes the negotiation for a lower endpoint. And with the ridiculous premiums charged, 10-20% off the bill isn’t much to the provider, even if it’s a sizeable chunk of your lifetime savings.
If you don’t have a lump of cash to hand over in exchange for a deduction, you can probably get on a payment plan with the hospital. Although doing so may not lower your total significantly (or at all), you’ll avoid a negative factor on your credit report and have a concrete, manageable plan for getting rid of your debt.
You’ll have more luck if you start your negotiation first thing in the morning — and a few weeks after you first see the bill, according to Money Talks News’ interview with board-certified physician Steve Neilman.
But don’t wait too long — you don’t want it to go to collections!
2. Don’t Pay With Credit
I know it’s tempting when the bottom line is so high — but that’s exactly why you shouldn’t pay for medical (or these other) bills on credit.
You could end up paying hundreds of dollars on top of the bill in the amount of interest you’ll be charged. That total is big enough already, right?
You’re better off taking on an installment plan through the medical facility — which might not charge you any interest at all — than carrying a revolving debt that stands to make Visa a lot of money.
3. Make Sure You’re Using Your Insurance
You might also explore the possibility of putting the onus on the provider — that is, carefully examining your bill and the codes associated with each treatment to ensure they match the ones in your insurance plan.
It’s possible that an error — or an intentional case of upcoding — could cost you big time if the treatment is miscoded.
Your insurance company uses CPT codes to determine how much to reimburse the provider. Your plan will specify what procedures, under which codes, are included and at what cost. If your care is coded incorrectly, the procedure you see itemized for $842 might actually be $40 on your plan — or even free!
Also, don’t hesitate to file an appeal to your insurance company on denied claims. If you believe a service should be covered as per your plan, it’s worthwhile to reach out and ascertain what happened.
4. Make Sure You Actually Received the Services You Were Billed For
Request an itemized bill and review each line carefully. You might be surprised by what’s contributing to the summary total.
Ensure you were actually given the $25 aspirin you’re being charged for. Consumer reporter Caroline Mayer writes patients are sometimes charged for medication they brought themselves.
Duplicate items have also been known to appear on medical bills. (You probably didn’t have your gallbladder out twice.)
Were you charged as an inpatient or an outpatient? If you were only admitted for a few hours or a night, you might try to appeal your insurance company or the medical facility, as inpatient status is tied to significant increases in expense.
For this reason, it’s important to keep detailed records of your experiences with medical providers from the first moment you step into the lobby as well as records of all your interactions with the billing staff by telephone afterwards.
5. Get Help Negotiating Your Medical Bills
Backend errors like the ones I’ve listed above happen so frequently, in fact, that companies like Copatient — devoted to the singular task of helping you negotiate your medical bills — exist. What’s more, they find wiggle room in the bills they look at 80% of the time.
Copatient will pour over your documents to find loopholes and errors on the backend, and they charge only a small percentage of what they save you for their services. That’s right: If they don’t save you anything, you don’t spend a dime.
Patient advocates and attorneys can also help you figure out convoluted medical bills. But you’ll want to shop around carefully so you don’t funnel all the money you save directly back into paying for those services.
You might also consider sourcing funds to pay for existant bills from organizations like Modest Needs, which provide grants to self-sufficient individuals who can usually cover their expenses, or other charitable organizations that are sometimes available in-house at the hospital. If you have access to a strong network that would respond well to a crowdsourcing campaign, try GoFundMe or YouCaring.
But again, don’t wait too long — depending on whose help you seek, you may need to apply within a certain timeframe from the bill’s issuance to be eligible.
If you’re trying to avoid future medical expenses:
6. Make Sure You Need Medical Care Before You Pay for It
As the type of hypochondriac who never misses an annual exam, I’m certainly not recommending you don’t seek medical treatment.
But there is such a thing as overdoing it. I learned this the hard way when I ended up with a $1,500 hospital bill after going to the ER thinking I had appendicitis. Turns out it was just (really) bad gas. I should have known when the triage nurse asked me to jump up and down. When I could do so with relatively little discomfort, she rolled her eyes — and let me sit in the waiting room for four hours.
Reap the benefits of my expensive lesson: Avoid emergency rooms if possible. If you’re suffering symptoms that aren’t actually acute, treatment from your primary care physician is going to be much more affordable — exponentially so if you’re uninsured.
If you do have an emergency, supply your own transportation to the ER if you can, so long as it doesn’t put the patient in danger. An ambulance ride alone can cost over $1,200 if you’re uninsured, and is still an extra $50-$100 out of your pocket if you aren’t.
If you’ve been diagnosed with a health issue that requires an expensive procedure, you might actually stand to save money by getting a second opinion.
Although you’ll spend more up front by undergoing two exams and duplicates of any tests the doctor wants rerun, a second opinion might save you thousands of dollars in surgery and hospitalization fees — not to mention the fact it might even save your life.
7. Shop Around for Medical Care
It might seem difficult to figure out which doctor’s office will charge you the least for your annual exam or routine procedures.
But the power of information-sharing technology is revealing price differences that used to be invisible to the consumer. Check out this amazing tool that measures how much hospitals in your area charge for a given procedure against other local hospitals — and the national average.
Lots of variability, huh? I was surprised by the extreme difference in mark-ups between for-profit and not-for-profit hospitals — try 1,200%! Considering the high price of even “cheap” medical care, this is information you want to be privy to well before you wake up at 2 a.m. with chest pains.
If you’re facing down a relatively minor surgical procedure, consider going outpatient. Jeff Rice, CEO of Healthcare Blue Book (another invaluable resource for figuring out where to get medical care), says one patient saved upwards of $5,000 on his knee surgery by asking if he could have the procedure done in an outpatient facility.
8. Save on Medication by Going Generic
In case you harbor any delusions to the contrary, let me clear the air once and for all: generic drugs are exactly the same as their name-brand counterparts. There is absolutely no reason to pay the extreme premium on a branded pill.
Plus, generic prescription drugs are available for free — or steeply discounted — at vendors like Target and Publix. Walmart offers a wide range of generics for $4 in many states. Here’s a good comprehensive list of free and low-cost drugs.
9. Open a Health Savings Account
An ideal financial situation includes having a stash of cash specifically for the medical bills that will arise throughout your lifetime.
You might set aside some of your emergency savings for this purpose, but if you have a high-deductible health plan, consider opening an HSA through your insurer or bank. That way you know you have a certain amount of money that’s only to be used for medical expenses.
Plus, the cash in these accounts can be invested, so you can generate even more cash, especially since the contributions are pre-tax/tax-deductible. That means your money grows — and comes out of the account — tax-free.
10. Take Care of Yourself
Preventative medicine is totally free.
It’s old advice and not sexy or exciting, but if you eat well and exercise regularly, you’re less likely to require medical treatment in the first place.
Take advantage of the checkups covered under your insurance plan. Your annual exam might be a pain for your schedule (and your blood-drawing arm), but you stand a better chance of catching would-be expensive (and, uh, terrifying) medical issues before they rear their ugliest heads.
You might also receive chiropractic care, acupuncture and massage through your insurance plan. Understand your benefits, and take advantage of them!
Living a healthy lifestyle doesn’t have to be overwhelming or expensive, and I promise you don’t have to give up every food but kale for the rest of your life. There are lots of apps to make living more healthfully easy and even fun.
In The Penny Hoarder office, we love Standapp, which reminds you to stand up every 20 minutes you’re seated at your desk. Standing just two minutes for every 20 you sit is thought to do away with the detrimental effects of sitting all day! That’s not too hard, is it?
I’ve been using Pact for years and make about $50 per year just for recording habits I’d be keeping up with anyway. Plus, it provides a little extra motivation on those days when a run just doesn’t sound so appealing.
You only get one body; so, take care of it. Plus, you’ll have more money to enjoy over the course of your long life!
Your Turn: Which of these tactics do you use to save money on medical expenses? What have we missed?
Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She also writes other stuff, like wine reviews and poems.