Consumer IQ

5 Ways to Spend Less on Healthcare

Cost of health care

Health expenditures in the United States neared $2.6 trillion in 2010, and in total, health spending accounted for 17.9% of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) that same year.

The cost of healthcare has continued to go up, putting a larger and larger financial burden on the average American.

As part of the Mint.com Money Boo Boos Sweepstakes, Mint is encouraging you to correct your money mistakes and start the New Year off on the right foot.

Make this the year you stop overpaying for healthcare and get better control of your spending.

Here are 5 ways to spend less on healthcare:

Keep Tabs on Your Stats

Checkups are usually done to monitor your condition, not actively treat it. Cut down on the number of these visits – and the co-pays that come with them – by keeping tabs on your vital stats.

Home-testing kits for many conditions these days are reliable, easy to use and inexpensive. For example, a blood-pressure monitor runs $30 to $140, according to Consumer Reports, while glucose kits range from $10 to $150.

You can get reimbursed for these by your insurer if your doctor writes you a prescription for them.

Make a Deal with Your Doc

If you haven’t met your deductible yet or you have pricey co-insurance, see if your doctor will cut his rate if you pay in cash.

If you need to see an out-of-network specialist, prove to your insurer that its plan doesn’t have one with the expertise you need.

If the answer is no, then ask the specialist if you can pay 35% less than the total charge (that’s what he typically gets from your insurer).

Buy Cheaper Drugs

According to employee-benefits consulting firm Mercer, most insurance plans still have tiered systems, under which you pay one rate for generic drugs ($10 average), one for “preferred” brands and the most for non-preferred drugs ($50 average).

However, nearly a quarter of large employers are restricting or eliminating coverage of popular brand-name drugs.  Compare your plan to your spouse’s to see which one offers the better deal, says Michael Bihari, M.D., a pediatrician and medical consultant.

He says, “Check whether your drugs are on the preferred list, and note restrictions for drugs you think you may need. More plans are requiring prior authorization for new prescriptions, or making you try another drug first before they’ll pay.”

More employers are offering a no-pay plan for certain drugs; check to see if yours is one of them. If your meds aren’t on the list, ask your doctor if you can safely switch to one that is.

To find low-priced generic drugs near you, use Good Rx’s website or mobile app to plug in the drug and your location to get retail prices at local and online pharmacies and big-box retailers.

Or you can use mail-order pharmacies, where discounts can run as high as 70%, but make sure you find the real deal instead of an online scam.

Stop Taking Unnecessary Tests

Whether you’re monitoring a chronic condition or checking the reason behind your back pain, you’re probably undergoing diagnostic tests like an MRI or EKG.

There are a myriad of preventive tests recommended for middle-aged, including mammograms and colonoscopies, and under Obamacare, certain preventive tests are now free, as long as you use an in-network provider.

But say you are recommended to get an imaging test, like an ultrasound. Most insurance plans will charge you 20% co-insurance for in-network and 40% out-of-network after you meet your deductible. If it’s an X-ray or an MRI, 20% will cost a couple hundred dollars.

But unless you or your doctor have reason to suspect a more serious condition, those tests aren’t necessary to treat muscle aches and pains, says Bihari (most doctors recommend ibuprofen and a regiment of physical therapy).

If you can’t avoid an imaging test, search your insurer’s website for a list of network imaging providers, then call each one to see what they’ll charge. The cost range in some areas can be quite wide.

For example, the Healthcare Blue Book, which collects data on healthcare pricing, found that rates for a brain MRI nationwide can range from $504 to $2,520.

Pick the Right Time for Dental Work

Once you hit 40, your teeth and childhood fillings start showing significant wear and tear, often needing to be replaced with costly crowns and bridges. A porcelain crown now averages $1,000.

And while most dental insurance covers routine twice-yearly cleanings and exams, they may only cover up to 80% for fillings and just 50% for bridges. Many plans also have low annual maximums of $1,200, or even less.

One way to cut costs is by planning dental work in advance. If a crown will cost you $2,400 and you are close to your $1,200 annual maximum, ask your dentist if you can get a temporary crown, and push the permanent one to the next calendar year. This move could save you upwards of 50%.

Because dental care is something you can usually budget for, make an educated guess about what your annual out-of-pocket costs are for dental work.

When open-enrollment time comes around, deposit that amount into your flexible spending account at work or, if you have a high-deductible insurance plan, put it into a health savings account.

That could reduce the net cost of dental work by 30% to 40%, depending on your tax bracket.

On the flip side, if you’re looking at several expensive procedures – your kid needs braces or your spouse also needs bridges or crowns – it might be worth doing them all in the same calendar year so you can take a medical tax deduction.

You can write off some healthcare expenses, including dental work, if they exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income. While the upfront costs may hurt, a tax break could soften the pain.

Vanessa Richardson is a freelance writer in San Francisco who writes about small business and personal finance.