Strategies for Stretching Your Health-Care Dollar

Always plan ahead, compare costs and know what your policy covers, experts advise

SUNDAY, May 28, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- When it comes to health care, it's not the uncomfortable needle pricks that Americans mind so much. It's the cost of medical care.

Lately, consumers have been feeling pinched when they visit the doctor or receive care at the hospital, new government statistics reveal. In 2004, spending for these services grew at levels not seen since the early 1990s.

And workers' share of health-care premiums is mounting, too. People who get health insurance benefits through their employer can expect to pay out 10 percent more, on average, in 2006, according to benefit-consulting firm Towers Perrin.

To make your health-care budget stretch farther and avoid piling up medical debt, you've got to plan ahead, advised Jessica Cecere, president of Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Palm Beach County/Treasure Coast in Florida.

"Nobody plans to have huge medical expenses," she said, "and that's why they're so huge."

For starters, consumers need to know exactly what their health insurance will and won't cover. Cecere recommends that people read and understand their policy before there's an emergency.

Using facilities that are not part of your insurer's provider network, for example, could cost you more than you anticipated. To keep your out-of-pocket costs at a minimum, stay in-network, she said.

Plus, if you don't use what you're entitled to, you could end up leaving money on the table, cautioned Alwyn Cassil, a spokeswoman for the Center for Studying Health System Change in Washington, D.C.

For example, some employers allow workers to set aside pre-tax dollars in a flexible spending account each year to pay for qualified medical expenses, including doctor fees and preventive care. But if you don't spend the money by the annual deadline your employer has established, you forfeit those funds.

In 2005, the U.S. Treasury Department modified an existing rule that required any leftover funds to be spent by the end of the plan year. Now, employers are allowed to give workers a grace period of two-and-a-half months. Check with your employer to find out what the deadline is.

"If you have a flexible spending account, use it," Cassil said. "You can use it for over-the-counter medications now, so there's no reason to lose it. Go buy ibuprofen for the next two years."

To save money on prescription drugs, consumer advocates suggest switching from brand-name products to less expensive generic alternatives. Shopping around for best prices also can help.

Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, has produced a series of reports comparing prescription drugs by category. Each report sizes up medicines by price, effectiveness and safety. The information is intended to help consumers have a conversation with their doctors about the best drug for their condition, while also taking price into account. (To learn more click here.)

If you find yourself between jobs and you think health insurance is too expensive, think again. Going without coverage for a period of time, as people often do, is a huge risk, Cecere said.

"If you do fall off a ladder and have to go into the hospital for a week, that is devastating," she said. And that's why people should plan ahead. "The way you plan for it is you have some sort of coverage for that," even if it's a bare-bones policy that covers only "catastrophic" medical costs, she added.

Here's another tip: If you don't require emergency care, make an appointment with your doctor. Using the emergency room for routine medical care is a good way to start sinking into debt.

"You might get charged $1,000 for walking in the door," Cecere cautioned.

More information

To learn more, visit FamiliesUSA.

SOURCES: Jessica Cecere, president, Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Palm Beach County/Treasure Coast, Florida; Alwyn Cassil, spokeswoman, Center for Studying Health System Change, Washington, D.C.; January/February 2006, Health Affairs; Towers Perrin 2006 Health Care Cost Survey; July 2005, Health Care Spending Accounts: What You Need to Know About HSAs, HRAs, FSAs, and MSAs; Best Buy Drugs, Consumer Reports
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