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

Get a Flexible Spending Account
Ask if your employer offers a flexible spending account (FSA). Funded with a pre-tax contribution from your salary each pay period, an FSA is used like a credit card to pay for prescriptions, copays, deductibles, most OTC drugs and other medical expenses not covered by some insurance plans, like acupuncture and Lasik eye surgery. There is one catch, though. FSAs operate under a use-it-or-lose it rubric. It’s up to you to determine how much to set aside, but if you don’t spend it all by mid-March of the following year, the money is gone for good. Take a look at last year’s bills to estimate how much you’ll spend on medical expenses this year. Here is a comprehensive list of IRS-approved eligible FSA healthcare expenses.

Avoid the Emergency Room if It’s Not an Emergency

Waiting until the morning to see your doctor could save you hundreds of dollars and a long wait in line. “Half of the people who go to the emergency room don’t need to,” says Koelker. “An ER visit for an earache is a real waste. It’s not going to make a difference if you take the antibiotic 12 hours earlier.” Since the copay for an emergency room visit is significantly higher than an office visit, call your primary care doctor’s emergency number first to find out if urgent care is necessary. Many hospitals also have an “Ask a Nurse” hotline to call before going to the hospital to help you determine if you need emergency care and, if not, what to do. Situations that can usually wait until the morning (or Monday if it’s the weekend) include earaches and sprained ankles. True emergencies, according to Koelker, include chest pain with shortness of breath, severe abdominal pain (could be kidney stones or appendicitis), vomiting blood and inability to breathe.

Ask for a Discount on Your Medical Bill
If you receive a surprisingly high medical bill in the mail, don’t panic. Though it’s not advertised, in cases of financial hardship you can often get an after-the-fact discount. But you’ve got to ask for it, says Koelker. For hospital bills, approach the finance office; at a larger medical group, speak with the practice manager. If your doctor is in private practice, talk to him or her directly. Explain your financial situation and ask specifically about discount programs. Larger institutions may have a formal program and forms to fill out. NEXT: Find out how to find an affordable plan if you’re uninsured

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