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Insider Tips for Saving on Medical Costs

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With the tax-filing deadline behind you, chances are you're only beginning to recover from thoughts of credits, deductions, withholdings and the like. What you may not realize is how your 2012 tax return could impact your healthcare costs next year.

According to a recent article by MarketWatch, eligibility for federal subsidies to purchase insurance beginning in 2014 will be based on your adjusted gross income from this year’s return. This number will also determine the amount you pay as a penalty should you opt out of coverage.

During our annual health insurance renewal meeting, our broker shared some of this surprising information as well as tips for saving on medical costs. Here are some of his insights along with other tips from my experience.

1. Get Quotes for Care

While it may not be news that hospitals charge more than other facilities, the cost difference of a simple exam may still surprise you. The broker shared a story about a client who needed an MRI for his neck and was told by the hospital it would cost $2,400. The imaging center in town quoted him $600, and another facility in a neighboring area could do the procedure for $350. This $2,000 price difference is significant regardless of your income, and highlights the necessity of getting bids on medical procedures.

2. Consider Outpatient Surgery

Ambulatory surgery centers are growing in popularity as affordable alternatives to hospitals for basic procedures. Not only will your surgery cost about 30 percent less than if you had the procedure performed at a hospital, but you'll get in and out quicker, too. Minor or intermediate procedures -- like a colonoscopy or knee surgery -- are better done at ambulatory surgery centers because they can be performed quickly and recovery can occur at home.

3. Ask a Nurse

Most of the top health insurance providers like Anthem and UnitedHealthcare offer 24-7 nurse lines for toll-free calling. Nurses can provide answers to general health questions and help you decide if a visit to the doctor’s office is necessary. Checking in with a professional before you pay a copay will dramatically reduce your medical costs if you find yourself at the clinic for every sniffle.

4. Remember Urgent Care

When you twist your ankle or are so congested you can hardly breathe, you might check into the emergency room for relief. Though you should never delay treatment when you feel you really need it, remember the emergency room is for just that -- emergencies. Urgent care facilities are designed to accommodate patients with an immediate need that’s not life-threatening, and will treat you for much less. For example, the average cost of diagnosing and treating strep throat at the emergency room is $531, whereas an urgent care facility would charge around $111. Refer to Debt.org for more of these comparisons.

5. Use Insurance for Frames

I wear both glasses and contact lenses, so I have to decide which pricey necessity gets covered (or partially covered, in most cases) by my vision insurance. According to our broker, using the funds toward glasses represents the best value because they cost significantly more. That being said, you can also save on glasses by ordering them online from sites like Warby Parker, where a pair of designer frames and lenses will run about $95.

6. Shop Around for Generics

We all know generic medications cost less, but you might be surprised to learn how their prices vary between stores. Consumer Reports recently found a shocking difference between stores offering generic versions of well-known drugs like Lipitor and Plavix. Secret shoppers discovered Costco offered the best price for these drugs overall, with a one-month supply of Lipitor costing $17 versus $150 at CVS Pharmacy.

7. Request Free Samples

Some of the high costs associated with prescription meds are attributed to all the samples pharmaceutical companies give to doctors and other medical professionals. Ask your physician about available samples to offset the cost of your prescription, or search online for free offers. You can find free diabetic meters, recipe books and supplement guides from MrFreeStuff.com, for example.

8. Ask First

I learned this important lesson the hard way! Asking about the cost of procedures before agreeing to them seems like a no-brainer, but sometimes we assume it’s covered by insurance. I complained of sensitive teeth during a routine visit to the dentist, and the hygienist applied a drop of serum to relieve the pain. When I received my bill, I was shocked to discover the treatment cost $50!

9. Get Paid to Join a Gym

Some providers are offering reimbursement for health membership fees to encourage wellness and reduce insurance claims. According to the insurance broker, select Anthem plans will pay gym members approximately $200 every six months if they attend three times per week. If your selected plan doesn’t offer this benefit, consider these other ways to get fit for less.

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