4 ways to trim health costs today

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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.

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.”

“For simple acute problems such as sore throats, ear infections or urinary tract infections, they are a great alternative to an emergency department,” he says.

Use prescription drug programs

Eligible individuals and families can get prescription medications at little to no cost by signing up for a patient assistance program. The Partnership for Prescription Assistance, or PPA, offers information about many such programs.

“PPA is a clearinghouse that helps uninsured and financially struggling patients gain access to the medications they need,” says Edward Belkin, vice president of communications and public affairs for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America in Washington, D.C., which sponsors the PPA.

Patients can also get information about such programs from their doctor or medication manufacturers.

Also, keep your eye out for other low-cost prescription drug programs offered by retailers. For example, the Southeast regional grocer Publix offers to fill many antibiotic prescriptions for free, and Walmart has offered low-cost prescription drugs for years.

Seek out dental schools

Another way to trim your health care costs is to visit a dental school for care.

“Each school will have its own fee schedule, but school fees are often 50 percent of prevailing market rates for a community,” says Dr. Matthew Messina, a Cleveland-based dentist and a consumer adviser for the American Dental Association.

According to Messina, the quality of care at a dental school is comparable to that of a large dental clinic. However, he notes that you will trade time for money.

For example, a procedure that typically takes an hour in a private dental office, such as a simple filling, may take three hours at a dental school clinic. That’s because “each step of a procedure must be checked by an instructor,” Messina says.

“If time is a concern for you, a dental school clinic would be troublesome,” he says.

Other potential drawbacks for some patients may include being “assigned” a dentist, rather than choosing your own, and limited accessibility.

“There are only 48 dental schools, and they are situated only in major metropolitan areas,” Messina says. “People interested in discounted care may want to contact their local dental society or the American Dental Association for information.”