Affordable Healthcare: How to Save on Health Insurance, Prescription Drugs and Medical Bills

It's open enrollment season for health insurance -- learn how to pick the best plan and get tips on other ways to save

Money is tight all around. But some money-saving strategies could be bad for your health. According to a new survey by Consumer Reports almost half of Americans are skipping doctor’s visits and taking less medication than prescribed in order to save money. In the long run, that could cause pricier health problems. Instead of compromising your health, use these six tips to save money while getting the care you need.

Pick the Best Health Insurance Plan
Since it’s open enrollment season, now is the time to compare your employer’s plan with your spouse’s before you re-enroll. If you choose carefully, the savings in monthly premiums can be huge. The golden rule, according to healthcare savings guru Cynthia Koelker, M.D., author of 101 Ways to Save Money on Healthcare, is to ask the right questions before handing over your money.

-- Premiums: Will your total monthly premium be lower if you’re on the same plan as your spouse? Which plan offers better monthly rates for covering your kids? If the choice isn’t obvious, bring both policies into your human resources department and ask for help.

-- Copays: Do you and your family see the doctor often? If so, copays can accumulate quickly. Find out which plan has fewer (or lower) copays on doctor’s visits and prescriptions.

-- Deductibles: A deductible is the dollar amount you pay out of pocket for medical expenses before your insurance plan pays for anything. Does a higher deducible make sense for your family? If you anticipate large medical expenses in the coming year, consider a plan with a lower deductible. If your family doesn’t visit the doctor often, consider a plan with lower premiums and a higher deductible.

-- Find more savings: Ask if your plan incorporates incentives to lower your monthly premiums such as gym membership, quitting smoking or getting a biometric screening, a detailed health evaluation.


Save on Prescriptions
Not all drug prices are created equal -- pharmacies set their own prices for prescription drugs. “Sometimes it’s a big difference,” says Dr. Koelker. “I had one patient who said his antibiotic was $8 at one pharmacy and $50 at another one!” Koelker advises shopping around and asking if there are any discounts, even if none are advertised. This may come as a surprise, but if you ask for a price match on a prescription you’ll probably get one, says Koelker. “It’s quite common.”

More money-saving tips:
-- Go generic: Ask your doctor to prescribe generic drugs if there’s no medical reason you need a brand name version. Generics and brand name drugs have the same chemical composition of active ingredients, but sometimes have different inactive ingredients that affect how the body absorbs the medication. For example, brand name thyroid medication is often more effective than the generic.

-- Pay out of pocket: Ask your pharmacist how much your prescription would cost if you didn’t use your insurance card at the time of payment. Insurance companies often have set prices for drugs that don’t apply if you simply pay out of pocket. Sometimes paying out of pocket saves money.

-- Buy in bulk: Ask your doctor for a 90-day prescription to save on monthly drug copays. Your insurance company may offer lower drug prices through a mail-order pharmacy program, especially when filling a 90-day prescription. Some pharmacies, such as Walmart, also offer discounts for buying three months of medication at once.

-- Get a sample: Ask your doctor if she has samples so you can get the first round (or more) for free before filling your prescription.

-- Research free drugs: Large retailers, such as Schnucks in Missouri, Giant Eagle in Pennsylvania and Ohio and Shop Rite in the northeast, offer common antibiotics for free with a doctor’s prescription.

-- Ask for discounts: When an expensive medication has no generic counterpart, the drug company often has a patient assistance program to subsidize it for low-income or uninsured individuals. RxAssistant.com provides a searchable database to see which drug companies offer such programs and the number to call.

-- Search for coupons online: Sites like InternetDrugCoupons.com link to hundreds of manufacturer coupons for over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription drugs. You’ll find coupons for everything from migraine medication to skin creams. NEXT: Get a flexible spending account and find out how to ask for doctor bill discounts

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