Although healthcare costs haven't been snowballing as fast in the last five years as they had in the decade before, many American consumers likely still feel trapped in an avalanche of medical expenses. Average premiums for employer-sponsored family health premiums reached $18,764 in 2017 — up 3 percent from the year before — with workers paying $5,714 on average toward the cost of their coverage, according to findings from the Kaiser Family Foundation's Employer Health Benefits Survey.
Premiums aren't the only health care costs on the rise — the average deductible for those with employer-provided health coverage skyrocketed from $303 to $1,505 between 2006 and 2017, according to a separate report from the Peterson Center on Healthcare and the Kaiser Family Foundation. But there are ways to keep yourself from being buried in bills without cutting corners on care.
Click through to learn cost-saving strategies to reduce your healthcare costs this year, and help keep your bank balance — and yourself — healthy.
1. Ask for Generic Prescriptions
According to the Federal Drug Administration, when patents or other periods of exclusivity expire, manufacturers can apply to the FDA to sell generic versions, which have the same active ingredients as their name-brand counterparts. A report from IQVIA (formerly QuintilesIMS) on behalf of the Association for Accessible Medicines found that generic drugs saved the U.S. healthcare system $1.67 trillion from 2007 to 2016.
"Discuss possible generic options with your physician before starting a new medication," Jared Heathman, a psychiatrist with Your Family Psychiatrist, said. Knowing what generic options are available to you can help you save money. Also, see if an equivalent is available as an over-the-counter option, which might be covered by your flexible spending account.
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2. Ask Your Pharmacy for Deals on Medication
Some pharmacies offer coupons or discounts on certain medications. For example, Walmart offers prescription refills from $4. Walgreens has a prescription savings club, which can provide savings from around $50 to more than $100 on a 90-day supply of a generic drug. Giant Eagle offers a $4 to $10 generic drug discount program and will match the prices of retail competitors.
Large retail stores and pharmacies can buy generic drugs in bulk, which allow them to sell them at cheaper prices or even offer some common prescription drugs for free. Retailers recoup profits when consumers buy other products from the store, such as impulse buys or higher-ticket items.
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3. Use Telemedicine
Telemedicine manages patients' health by remotely exchanging medical information from one site to another via electronic communications. Telemedicine includes the use of video, email, smartphones, wireless electronics and other forms of telecommunications technology.
Currently, there are approximately 200 telemedicine networks with 3,500 service sites, according to the American Telemedicine Association. The practice is growing in the U.S., with more than half of hospitals using it in some form.
Not only can telemedicine save you money, it can save you time and health hassles, said Taffy Wagner, president of Own Your Healthcare. "Using telemedicine for common health problems can avoid co-pays, sitting in waiting rooms and being exposed to more germs," she said.
4. Visit Health Fairs
Wagner said health fairs offer health screenings at little to no cost. Many health fairs measure height, weight, blood pressure, vision, anemia and blood chemistry, and offer oral screenings, podiatry exams, hearing tests and glaucoma screenings, according to Unite for Sight, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving eye health and eliminating preventable blindness. But the organization warned that inaccurate results from screening are possible and should be verified.
Still, even fairs that offer information alone can have positive impacts on attendees' health. For example, one study published in the Journal of Public Health Research found that 45 percent of people who received information about cancer screenings at community health fairs shared their newfound knowledge with others, 15 percent subsequently spoke to a healthcare provider about cancer screenings and 40 percent said they intended to do so.
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5. Know Your Numbers
Insurance providers, pharmacies and healthcare providers also offer free health screenings from time to time. Local labs also often offer diagnostic tests and at lower costs than doctors' offices and hospitals, said Michael Dinich, a former Army combat medic who now works as a financial advisor. He recommends shopping around for diagnostic services, keeping track of test results and sharing them with your healthcare team.
"Having your records on hand can cut down on visits," said Dinich, who operates the site Your Money Geek. "Always ask for the results of any tests and keep them with your records. Having recent test results on hand can cut down on diagnostic work."
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6. Consider Walk-In Clinics
Walk-in clinics provide healthcare for patients without pre-scheduled appointments. Some clinics, such as NextCare, offer online check-in so that patients can avoid lengthy waits. The provider will alert you by call or text when you are next in line.
"Walgreens has walk-in clinics that might cost less than seeing your regular doctor," Wagner said. And Walgreens Prescriptions Savings Club members also get a 10 percent discount on the list price of healthcare services obtained at a Walgreens in addition to savings on prescriptions and other items in the store.
These clinics will almost certainly be cheaper than a visit to the emergency room but aren't ideal for every medical need. A walk-in clinic is a good option for non-urgent conditions such as allergic reactions, minor injuries and fevers, according to Debt.org. But extreme conditions such as a stroke or heart attack are better treated at an emergency room, which has more resources for more life-threatening issues.
7. Pay Cash Rather Than Use Health Insurance
Wagner said paying cash instead of using health insurance can actually save you money in certain situations.
For instance, some providers offer discounts for patients paying out of pocket, which can add up to significant savings. If your insurance plan has a high annual deductible that you probably won't meet, you're really paying for your medical care out of pocket anyway, so it never hurts to compare costs. You can use resources such as Healthcare Bluebook to help compare costs.
8. Cut Clawback
You should also ask about the out-of-pocket price for your medications if you have a copayment for prescriptions, said Christopher K. Lee, a healthcare consultant and who shares insights and advice at the PurposeRedeemed website.
"Based on your insurer's or pharmacy benefit manager's set rates, your copay with insurance might — on rare occasions — exceed the cash price for the drug," said Lee. "This is known as a clawback, and the extra cash goes back to your insurer."
9. Shop Around for Health Services
Just as with buying everything from cars to cat food, shopping around for health services can help consumers save.
A growing number of websites exist to help prospective patients estimate what their out-of-pocket expenses will be before seeing a doctor about a condition, and experts say healthcare consumers are increasingly using the information to negotiate terms with doctors or demand more transparency before they are saddled with big bills for procedures.
Check nonprofit sites such as Fair Health Consumer or state-run sites like ones offered by Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire to start your research. Compare data from multiple sources to make sure you're getting the most accurate information. If you're considering government healthcare programs, learn about the cost differences between Medicare and Medicaid.
10. Consider Online Lending for Costly Procedures
Some costly procedures are not covered by insurance policies, leading many patients to take on debt in order to undergo treatment. For instance, a study by the online lending company Prosper found insurance covered less than half of the cost of fertility treatments for survey respondents — and 44 percent of respondents took on more than $10,000 in debt to cover the cost themselves.
Kwabena Stefan, who works with Prosper, said the company's healthcare lending can offer more attractive interest rates and better terms than credit cards.
"Prosper Healthcare Lending offers affordable loans for elective procedures like IVF," said Stefan, a media specialist with the public relations and content marketing firm the Bateman Group. "Millions of women undergo IVF each year in the U.S., and the average cost of one cycle is $12,000, nearly 25 percent of the average household income in America."
11. Use Health Apps to Cut Costs
Many new health apps offer health management and tracking software. Others can help consumers cut costs on prescriptions.
"Check all of your prescriptions on GoodRx to find online coupons and the cheapest nearby pharmacy," said Heathman, the psychiatrist with Your Family Psychiatrist. According to the GoodRx site, the site's average user saves $276 a year on their prescriptions.
12. Check the Closets
Many nonprofits and other organizations operate community loan closets that let users borrow medical equipment such as wheelchairs, crutches or walkers at little or no cost, said Janice Selden, whose nonprofit, Great Lakes Loan Closets, operates an online directory of lending organizations in her region.
"These organizations receive donated medical equipment from people who no longer need it. They clean the equipment, make sure it's in good condition, and lend it to community members who need it," said Selden.
13. Check If You Need to Continue Taking Your Prescriptions
As you age, the medications you take will change. Additionally, specialists who you see for certain conditions might prescribe additional medications. Your primary care doctor should be aware of any new drugs you are prescribed, as some might interact undesirably with a drug you are already taking.
You might also be paying for and taking drugs you no longer need or could have adverse effects on your health. For instance, the risks of hormone replacement therapy might outweigh the benefits for women with a history of conditions including cancer, blood clots and heart disease.
14. Read the Fine Print
Carefully review all bills from healthcare providers and explanations of benefits from insurance providers before covering any costs yourself. Hire help if you can't decipher details, said Ruth Linden, founder and president of Tree of Life Health Advocates.
"Errors are common, such as billing for services that were never provided and duplicate charges," she said. "If you receive a large bill for services — following an ER visit or surgery, for example — and you don't understand how to read it, hire a medical billing advocate to assist you. She or he will not charge you if everything is in order. On the other hand, if errors or a questionable charge is found, the typical billing advocate might charge you one-third to one-half of the amount they save you. Your cost savings could run into thousands of dollars."
Charlene Oldham contributed to the reporting for this article.