Shop your doctors and treatments.
Because health-care costs have risen, most of us are paying higher premiums, deductibles and co-pays. But only 3 percent of us have tried to trim what we contribute out of pocket by comparison-shopping our health care — for instance, finding out in advance what different doctors charge for, say, an MRI or knee replacement surgery.
One reason: Consumers don’t know that doctors’ fee information is easy to find using the “cost-estimator” tools on most health insurance websites. You can also use third-party sites, such as HealthcareBluebook.com, FAIRHealthConsumer.org, Guroo.com and Amino.com. Consumer Reports analyzed tools offered by major insurance companies as well as eight stand-alone sites based on qualities such as ease of use, functionality and reliability. See the ratings at cr.org/healthcarecosts.
Know what's free.
Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, nearly all of us who have insurance are entitled to certain preventive services free of charge as long as we stay in our insurance network. What you may get for no cost may surprise you: blood pressure testing, breast-feeding support, colonoscopies, depression screening, nutrition counseling and vaccinations. Check out the full list of eligible services at healthcare.gov.
Take advantage of drugstore discounts.
Stores such as Kmart, Sam’s Club and Walmart offer hundreds of common generic drugs at very low prices — sometimes as low as $4 to $10 — that may be less than your insurance co-pay. Ask the pharmacist whether the store has a discount program. Note: Money spent on meds purchased using these discount programs doesn’t go toward your insurance deductible.
Beware of pricey combo drugs.
When the patent on a drug nears its end, some manufacturers reformulate the medication into something “new” they can price higher than the generic equivalent. For example, the expensive migraine drug Treximet is actually a combination of two older, low-cost generic drugs: sumatriptan and naproxen. Nine tablets of 85-500 mg Treximet cost $695 at healthwarehouse.com. But the same website offers nine 100 mg tablets of sumatriptan for less than $16 and nine 500 mg naproxen tablets for about $5. That’s a savings of $674.
Ask your doctor: 'How much does this drug cost?'
A CR poll of 200 doctors in 2016 found that they generally don’t discuss the cost of a drug with their patients. But if you let your doctor know that price is an obstacle for you, he or she may be able to offer a more affordable alternative, such as the medication’s generic equivalent.
Don't assume using your insurance at the pharmacy is the cheapest approach.
A survey of pharmacists by the National Community Pharmacists Association found that many knew of instances of “clawbacks” — where the price your insurer makes the pharmacy charge you is more than the pharmacy’s normal retail price. Think your pharmacist will flag that when it happens? Not necessarily. Some pharmacists can tell you about lower prices only if you ask first.
Ask your doctor whether you can stop taking any of your meds.
A 2017 CR national survey shows that when patients asked their health-care providers whether they could stop taking one or more of their prescription medications, in 71 percent of the cases the doctor eliminated at least one drug.
Leverage tax breaks.
Another way to ease the pain of high out-of-pocket medical costs is to put money into a flexible spending account (FSA) or a health savings account (HSA). Both allow you to set aside tax-free dollars to cover costs that your insurance doesn’t. FSAs are offered only if you have employer-based insurance, and HSAs are available only to those in a high-deductible health insurance plan.
Get care on the calendar.
If you have health insurance, keep track of your spending against your annual deductible, which resets every year on Jan. 1. If you anticipate an expensive procedure that will get you over your deductible, schedule it early in the year if you can. That way, if you need more care later in the year, your insurance will kick in. And if you’ve already hit your deductible, don’t put off making appointments.
Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Read more at ConsumerReports.org.