insurance

4 ways to trim health costs today

Highlights
  • Prescription drug programs slash costs of medications.
  • Retail health clinics offer basic health care for less.
  • Dental schools take patients willing to trade savings for time.

In today's tough times, many families are looking for ways to save beyond clipping coupons and skipping morning lattes. Medical expenses are an often overlooked area where you can cut costs.

While Congress debates future health care reform, here are four ways to trim your family's medical bills right now.

Enroll in FSAs, HSAs and HRAs

Enrolling in a flexible spending account, or FSA; health savings account, or HSA; or health reimbursement arrangement, or HRA; can trim your tax bill and reduce the cost of medical services.

FSAs and HSAs allow you to set aside a certain amount of money from your paycheck before taxes to cover qualified medical expenses. Your employer can contribute funds to these accounts as well. Employers use HRAs to reimburse employee medical expenses.

All of these plans offer money-saving advantages, according to Phil Lebherz, founder of the Foundation for Health Coverage Education, a San Jose, Calif.-based nonprofit organization that educates people about public and private health care coverage.

However, Lebherz urges consumers to weigh certain considerations before deciding which plan is right for them.

“If you are uninsured, you can expect to save a lot of money -- likely more than 80 percent savings compared to an emergency department.”

"If you're considering an FSA, for example, you should be aware that you can't rollover leftover funds into the next year," he says. "In other words, if you don't use it, you lose it."

These plans also help make consumers more aware of where their medical dollars go.

"These plans create a transparency between doctors and patients," Lebherz says. "Patients are asking more questions than ever before about their medical care and its associated costs."

FSAs, HSAs and HRAs are not offered by every company, so consult your employer's human resources representative to learn more about these plans and specific eligibility requirements.

Visit retail health clinics

Retail health clinics can provide considerable savings for some patients who have basic health care needs. These walk-in clinics are popping up across the country in shopping malls, drugs stores and major retailers, such as Target and Walmart.

The clinics provide routine services such as checkups, blood screening and vaccinations. No appointments are necessary, and wait times are often minimal. If you have health insurance, your standard co-payment will likely apply.

"If you are uninsured, you can expect to save a lot of money -- likely more than 80 percent savings compared to an emergency department and more than 40 percent savings compared to a physician office," says Dr. Ateev Mehrotra, assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and lead author of a Rand Corp. study that examined levels of consumer satisfaction with such facilities.

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Because retail health clinics are often staffed by nurse practitioners rather than doctors, some critics say these facilities prevent patients from building long-term relationships with their physicians. However, the Rand Corp. study found high levels of patient satisfaction at such clinics.

Mehrotra also recommends these free-standing clinics for "patients who are generally healthy and cannot get in to see their doctor in a timely manner."

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