10 ways to fight high medical bills

Even with insurance, you may be spending a lot on health care. Read our 10 tips to learn how to drop the balance on your medical bills.

By MSN Money Partner Jul 18, 2014 5:26PM

This post comes from Maryalene LaPonsie at partner site Money Talks News.


Money Talks News on MSN MoneyWe may all have health insurance now, but that doesn't make our medical bills magically disappear. No, we still have plenty to pay out-of-pocket.


In recent years, employers have shifted a greater portion of health care costs to workers. The 19th annual Towers Watson/National Business Group on Health employer survey found that employees now pay for 37 percent of their health care, including premiums and out-of-pocket costs, up from 34.4 percent in 2011. What's more, nearly half of employers surveyed expect to be making significant changes to their health care benefits by 2018.


While individuals with employer-sponsored health insurance will see their costs rise, it's nothing compared with what some of those with individual health insurance pay. For example, according to HealthPocket.com, bronze health plans may come with deductibles in excess of $10,000 for families. And once you meet that, your insurance will still pay only 60 percent of the cost of the covered services until you reach your out-of-pocket maximum.


Fortunately, we have some advice on how you can fight high medical bills and keep your out-of-pocket costs to a minimum.


1. Shop around

You wouldn't buy a car or a plane ticket without shopping around, so why aren't you also looking for the best deal for your medical care? Many co-payments are a percentage of the total cost so it pays to find the lowest price available.


Of course, you won’t be asking about prices in an emergency situation, and if you're having a complex operation, expertise will trump cost. However, when you need routine care or a non-emergency procedure or scan, you have time to check prices.


Websites like Healthcare Bluebook can help you determine fair prices for procedures and services. But, ultimately, you'll need to pick up the phone and start calling to learn what's being charged in your area.


2. Stay in your network

While getting prices, make sure you're staying within your insurance company's network of providers. Going out of network can mean significantly higher co-payments or, in some cases, insurers may refuse altogether to pay for out-of-network services.


You can likely search for in-network providers on your health insurance company's website. In addition, check with the medical office when calling for prices or an appointment to confirm the doctor or facility participates with your insurer.


3. Skip the ER

The emergency room should always be your last resort. Not only do you get impersonal service, you'll likely get hit with an outrageous co-payment. In my case, it costs $150 to visit the ER vs. $20 for an office visit.


If you can't wait to see your regular doctor, head to an urgent care center instead. The waits are usually shorter than what you find at the ER, and they typically cost less, too. You can find a center in your area at UrgentCareCenter.org. For best results, try searching for your nearest major city rather than your ZIP code.


4. Double-check bills

It may surprise you (or maybe it wouldn't) to learn that medical bills aren't always right. According to PennLive, hundreds of people can be involved in the billing process for a hospital stay, and one organization that reviews medical bills estimates that 80 percent of hospital bills contain a mistake.


Common errors include charges for medications never administered and services never rendered. Sometimes patients are double billed or charged for room items that should have been included as part of a stay.


Always request an itemized statement and check it carefully. If you find a mistake, call your provider's billing department to dispute it.


5. Find a coupon

Now, we know you won’t be able to find a coupon for your triple-bypass surgery or to have the doctor look at the strange fungus on your toe. However, you certainly can find coupons for prescription drugs.


Drug companies want to gain your loyalty, so they're more than willing to help cover your co-pay for at least the first few refills. Ask your doctor about any coupons or samples available through her or his office. If you strike out there, head to the manufacturer's website to see what might be offered online.


6. Ask for generics

Your doctor might be suggesting a brand-name prescription because they think you expect it.  Rather than bring up the commercial you saw on television, a better strategy may be to ask if there's a generic equivalent available.


Not only are generics cheaper overall, your health insurer may charge lower co-pays for them.

If you're worried about the safety of generics, you may find this article interesting reading.


For other ways to save on prescription drugs, read our advice on how to safely save on medications.


7. Head to a dental school

According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, nearly a third of the U.S. population lacks dental insurance. With the American Dental Association saying an adult cleaning in 2011 ran anywhere from $69 to $93, that's a lot of money just to have the plaque scraped away twice a year. Imagine what it will cost if you have a cavity or need a crown.


If you don't mind being a guinea pig, heading to a dental school can be a cheap way to get the care you need. It's one of the five ways we recommend to slash your dental bills in half. Read that article for links to dental schools and more information on dental savings strategies.


Medical doctor © Corbis/SuperStock8. Become a medical tourist

Traveling to another country for medical care might seem extreme, but it's an increasingly popular option for some people.


Medical tourism organization Patients Beyond Borders says consumers can save anywhere from 20 to 90 percent by traveling to destinations such as Costa Rica, Malaysia and India.


Among the most popular procedures are many that health insurance plans typically don't cover. Those include cosmetic surgery, weight loss procedures and fertility treatments.


Of course, foreign physicians and clinics are subject to different laws and standards than those in the U.S. You should carefully research those standards to be sure you are comfortable with the level of care you'll be receiving out of the country. Plus, you'll definitely want to check the credentials and references of any physician or clinic you're considering.


9. Take advantage of health insurance perks

If you get your insurance through an employer, watch for your chance to save money on your premiums during your company's open-enrollment period. A number of employers are willing to pitch in a greater percentage of your premiums or contribute toward your deductible if you participate in health screenings or programs such as smoking-cessation classes.


Even if your employer doesn't offer premium discounts, your health insurance policy may come with all sorts of bonus offers, ranging from discounts at the gym to coupon codes at partner websites. These aren't all health and fitness perks either. My plan offers discounts on travel and landscaping plants, among other things.


While all of these perks won't reduce the cost of your medical bills directly, some may help indirectly by encouraging you to get and stay healthy. And that brings us to the final way you can fight high medical bills.


10. Focus on prevention

Finally, the best way to save on your medical bills is to stay healthy.


Under health reform, your insurance provides free preventive care. Use it. Weed out small problems before they turn into huge health crises.


What's more, load up on fruits and veggies, get outside and walk every day and say no thank you to seconds at the buffet table. Being sedentary and overweight is hazardous to both your health and your wallet. Depending on which research you believe, annual medical costs for an obese individual are anywhere from $1,500 to more than $2,700 higher than those of someone with a normal weight.


Yes, some people have bad genes, and even the healthiest of folks can be stricken with debilitating diseases. However, you improve your odds of staying out of the doctor's office and off the operating table by living a healthy lifestyle.


What other ways can you think of to save on medical bills?


More from Money Talks News

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33Comments
Jul 18, 2014 6:25PM
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Peru is a great country to go to for an MRI.  I needed one, and even with my insurance, it was going to cost me $3100 out of pocket here in Phoenix.  But in Lima, Peru, I got it done for the following costs:

Airline Ticket $920 roundtrip
Hotel in Peru $85 x 2 nights
MRI at Cerema Clinic in Lima $190, that is with no insurance.
Not giving stupid ripoff doctors and hospitals in the USA my business - Priceless

Total Cost =  $1280

Much cheaper than the $3600 offered to me at hospitals and MRI specialty clinics in Phoenix.
Jul 18, 2014 8:23PM
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Go to your doctor or the urgent care clinic instead of the ER?  Sorry, unless you're only coming in for a case of the sniffles or a routine checkup, they send you to the ER.  Got a sprain, broke an arm or a leg, need stitches, have a migraine not responding to your medication and they'll send you to the ER.  Then you get to receive a bill from both the urgent care or doctor and the ER.

When I first started seeing my primary doctor, it was $63 for an office call (affordable even without insurance).  If you called with a problem, you were almost always seen the same day.  If you had questions, they took the time to listen and go over things with you.  Thought of something else while you're there, no problem.  Skip forward to today.  $279 for an office call, might be able to schedule you three weeks from now.  If it's more urgent than that, go to the ER.  Must let them know exactly what you need to be seen for.  If you think of something else while you are speaking with the doctor, "Sorry, you'll have to make another appointment to discuss that."  Yeah, I had that happen.  In for six-month routine med renewal and bought up another issue that arose since the time I made the appointment.  I was told I had to schedule another appointment, because he was out of the time allotted for me (after I'd sat in the waiting room for an hour past my actual scheduled appointment time).

That's what happens when all the small docs get bought up by these hospital systems.  They're overbooked and the quality of care goes down, while the prices keep going up.   My doc himself looks stressed to the max and looks like he's aged 20 years in the past 5 years since his practice group was bought out.
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one error - IT DOES NOT MAKE A DIFFERENCE WHAT THE PROVIDER CHARGES.
If the provider is part of your insurance's 'network' ( you can tell this by asking your insurance),
then the PROVIDER MUST TAKE THE INSURANCE MANDATED WRITE OFF on all line items.

but the provider will only be paid WHAT THE INSURANCE ALLOWABLE IS

ex: the provider can charge a $1000.00 for a office visit
your insurance ALLOWS $99.00 for a office visit
The provider MUST write off the difference $901.00

So again - it is NOT----ABSOLUTELY NOT  THE PROVIDER's CHARGE

IT IS WHAT YOUR INSURANCE ALLOWABLE IS

SO please please call your insurance and ask them 
1. is the specific provider "IN NETWORK"
2. what is the insurance "allowable" for the procedure/visit
3. do you have a deductible or copay or coinsurance?
    if yes, then what is it (as that will be the patient's out of pocket cost)

So I resent the media saying it is the providers charging too much.
It is the insurance having high patient deductible, high copays, and high coinsurance

You want the patient to save money?  The get the patient informed with the REAL facts.

Also do not ask to pay a cash rate then think you will be reimbursed by insurance....nope nope nope

paying cash means patient paying the bill

lots of time (with high patient deductible) this is the real savings.

Ask BEFORE the visit

Jul 18, 2014 6:41PM
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did you hear that in the nursing homes there giving out Viagra to the old guys to keep them from rolling out of bed.

what do you get when you take Viagra with beans? A stiff wind.

hear about the thieves who stole an entire shipment of Viagra?
    the police are looking for a gang of hardened criminals.

hear about the guy who was choking on a Viagra pill? he ended up with a stiff neck. 
Jul 18, 2014 6:17PM
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$20 for an office visit???? What century are they living in? My last visit to the urgent care for back pain consisted of bp, weight and temp check taken by the check in nurse and then a 10 minute visit w/ PA/nurse Bambi to write a Rx. That cost $224.00!!!! - oh that's after my NEW plan under the un-ACA picked up a whopping $6.85.
Jul 18, 2014 7:18PM
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what a ridiculous fing article , too bad when we click on these reports there's not really any help, hello journalists don't make up something just to be writing, try actually gathering useful information which is what the title implies to get us to read the article, instead of making the same sound as the wind out my back end
Jul 18, 2014 6:12PM
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and the number one way to fight high medical bills ? DUMP obomma care !!!!!
Jul 18, 2014 7:59PM
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Most ER's are full of illegals and Medicaid patients. Something needs to be done about them clogging the system meant to help really sick people!
Jul 18, 2014 6:05PM
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Oh hell yeah let's all go to a third world country for our medical care. 
Jul 18, 2014 8:46PM
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I heard some as#hole in Washington said we all had affordable health care did I miss understand  
Jul 18, 2014 6:31PM
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the best way is to take care of yourself and stay healthy.
Jul 21, 2014 4:36AM
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Always ask about the charges upfront and know what they are. I was billed $400.00 for a 15 minute outpatient ultrasound procedure by the Dr., then billed $1800.00 for the use of the room the procedure was conducted in by the hospital who leased it to the Dr. in his own medical facility. How can a procedure room be worth $7200.00 per HOUR? Talk about  a license to STEAL!  
Jul 19, 2014 8:34AM
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Not sure how most insurance companies do it, but our Blue Cross carrier usually insists on the generic version with the pharmacy fills a prescription.

 

By all means, check the bills and keep a folder with all your EOB's. I also use an Excel spreadsheet. I got 4 bills in two weeks for the same procedure. I have also seen cases where numerous items listed on one EOB resulted in 3 different bills from 3 different entities. The providers listed on the EOB will sometimes be the name of the doctor, while the bill will reflect the name of the business they operate under. I matched the exact amount in dollars and cents against a like a like amount on an EOB and then called the business to confirm if Dr. _____ worked there.

One bill said it was due open receipt. The billing date was 10 days prior to me receiving the bill, from a city 25 miles from where I live.

If a credit card company operated like this, the government would be all over them.

 

For those of you just getting health insurance, your nightmare is about to begin.

Jul 18, 2014 9:32PM
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Hahahaha,,,, $20 for an office visit? Where does this author live???
Jul 18, 2014 6:02PM
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how can you tell who the head nurse is? the one with the dirty knees.
Jul 21, 2014 11:10AM
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Do not buy health insurance coverage that you don't need!

 

Why pay for coverage that you will never use?  Tailor your coverage to those services that you need and save the difference in premiums.  Oh wait...Obamacare now forces you to cover yourself for services you might not ever need, to subsidize the lifestyle of others.

Jul 18, 2014 8:54PM
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QUIT VOTING FOR THE NEO CONS............they love it when 30 to 50 million don't have access to a doctor........THEY MAKE A LOT OF MONEY THAT WAY......and our health care system here ( only country that does this in the world ) has been ran for profit for 25 years !!!    AND you shouldn't have to rely on  your employer for health care either......F..K THAT.......most employers could give a rats ****  if you don't have health insurance any longer......oops....sorry.....your fault....tough luck kid.........but corporate profits are at record highs.......w   a   g   f   i   t   c
Jul 18, 2014 9:26PM
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Do not EVER go to a dental school!  My dentist sent me to one for an Endontist (sp?) procedure he couldn't do.  WORST mistake of my life.  Tried to double bill me, in person, took over 20 X-Rays, and three hours of having my mouth open while an unsupervised student nearly broke my surrounding teeth.  Never again.
Jul 21, 2014 11:28AM
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Don't want high medical bills? Just stay healthy.

Simple, isn't it?....and a big thank you to MSNBC for pointing this out

 

Next article covers ways to lower vet bills

....by not having pets

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