Tips to Reduce Your Medical Bills (Even If You’re on Medicare)

reduce your medical bills

There’s no doubt that medical bills are expensive. Even if you have Medicare or great private insurance, the out-of-pocket costs can be eye-popping. The vast majority of Americans – 87% - have health insurance, yet 41% of all Americans carry some form of medical or dental procedure debt[1]. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, one in 10 seniors was carrying medical debt in 2020, regardless of their status with Medicare. And even Medicare might not keep those costs down enough to keep seniors comfortable. A recent study found that seniors on Medicare spent an average of $5,460 out of pocket each year for their medical expenses.

Those numbers are concerning. They underscore the importance of not only taking good care of yourself today – including taking medications on time, obtaining medical alert technology to help you avoid the more serious consequences of falls and accidents, and getting plenty of fresh air, good exercise, and healthy food – but they also point out how important it is to try to keep the cost of medical bills down . Let’s look at some ways to do that.

How to Save Money on Medical Bills

Saving money on medical bills might seem impossible. There are so many moving parts, so many offices to contact, and so much difficulty in finding out what things actually cost in the medical world that the idea of tackling the bottom line costs can be daunting. But there are some ways you can lower your costs on the front end. Here are some of the first steps to take:

·         Choose in-network providers. When you choose an in-network provider, your insurance company is likely to provide you with a steep discount on your regular office visits. You will often have low co-pays that you are responsible for and insurance will pick up the rest. If you choose an out-of-network provider, the insurance company might not cover any of the cost, nor will that cost apply to your deductible.

·         Request free samples. When your doctor provides you with a new prescription, they might have samples that you can try for a few months before you actually spend money on the drugs. This is especially true if the samples are for newer, more expensive medications that can’t be found in a generic form.

·         Evaluate your prescription drugs. Do any of your usual prescription medications have a generic alternative? If you can tolerate the generic drugs and they do the trick for your medical condition, they could save you hundreds of dollars each month. Are there any drugs you are taking right now that could be replaced with over-the-counter options? Talk to your doctor about those options rather than simply changing up your medications yourself, to help ensure you stay safe if you make the transition to something new.

·         Look at drug delivery. Where you get your medications can make a big difference in how much they cost. Some medications are available through big-box retailers for a reasonable price for those who don’t use insurance – you might be able to get a month’s subscription for $10 or less. Others are more affordable when purchased in three-month supplies from a mail order company.

·         Consider urgent care centers. In some cases, urgent care centers might be much cheaper than the emergency department of a hospital. This is especially true if it is clear what has happened. For instance, if you have sprained your wrist and you have no doubt of how it happened, you can probably get the appropriate care from an urgent care center for a few hundred dollars versus a few thousand dollars at the emergency room. (However, some situations, such as suffering a bad fall or experiencing severe shortness of breath, need to be evaluated as a true emergency right away, and that might mean calling an ambulance or using a medical alert wireless system to call for help.)

·         Research costs for elective procedures. If you know you need to have a procedure but it’s not an emergency, you have time to shop around. Research the costs of a procedure in your local area. There are some ways to do this: you can call and ask for the estimated prices of a certain procedure and use those quotes to help determine your potential cost, or look for the Hospital Price Transparency guide each hospital is required to provide to the public.

·         Shop carefully for health insurance. When the time comes to renew your health insurance – usually during the open enrollment period – take your time to shop around. Look at your costs from the previous year and pinpoint what cost the most. Did you pay a high amount for prescriptions? In that case, compare different insurance policies and narrow them down based on the ones that pay the most for the drugs you take. Or if you need mental health benefits, rehabilitation services, or the like, make sure an insurance company covers them before you choose to go with that one.

These are some of the things that can help you keep your costs low from the start. But what if you are hit with an emergency and you suddenly have an avalanche of medical bills? There are other ways to make things more affordable.

·         Look closely at your medical bills. Did you know that up to 90% of medical bills are incorrect[2]? Avoid being one of those who pays more by asking for an itemized bill. Go through it line by line to determine if you did indeed have those procedures or medications, as well as if the insurance company paid their fair share. If you have questions about the bill, talk to the billing office to get a more detailed explanation or adjustment of the amount.

·         Never hesitate to ask for discounts. You can ask your doctor what the cost of anything will be – from an office visit to an in-depth procedure in the hospital. If they tell you that they must wait to see how much insurance will pay, you can ask for the cost before insurance, as well as contact your insurance company to see how much they will cover. This can give you an estimated bottom line, and you can tell your doctor what you can afford to pay of that amount. Ask for a discount; they might be willing to meet you halfway.

·         Contact a medical billing advocate. Sometimes a billing office won’t give you the information you need or might not be able to explain why they billed something a certain way. A medical billing advocate can help you by contacting the insurance company, billing office, and even a collection agency on your behalf and figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. They can also help you negotiate lower bills.

·         Negotiate based on the average costs for your area. Hospital Price Transparency went into effect on January 1, 2021. This requires hospitals and similar care facilities to provide a list of costs for procedures performed at the hospital. Though this can sometimes be tough to find, once you do, it can serve as a strong negotiating tool. You can compare the costs at hospitals in your area, especially those within your insurance network, and ask your doctor for discounts if their prices are higher than that of the competition.

·         Make sure insurance paid their share. Sometimes the insurance company won’t pay for something because it’s billed with an incorrect code. If you have an insurance claim flatly denied by the insurance company but you know they are supposed to pay for it, contact the billing office and explain the situation. They will often find that a code was entered incorrectly and take care of the problem immediately.

·         Pay in cash, if you can afford to do so. While most people pay through insurance or credit card, your doctor’s office might offer a discount if you choose to pay with cash. It saves them a great deal of time and hassle. You might even wind up with a very significant discount if it’s a more costly procedure.

·         Create a payment plan. If you find that yes, your bill is correct and no, you don’t have the ability to pay it right away, ask to create a payment plan. Most providers are more than happy to work with you to come up with a plan that allows you to pay down the balance a little at a time.

·         Be aware of the cost of medical errors. If you had a medical procedure done and then wound up with an infection or other problem due to a medical error, you can challenge the extra charges you incurred for fighting that secondary problem[3]. This might require getting copies of your medical and surgical records, itemized bills, and more – and you might need a strong patient advocate as well. But the money saved could be worth the hassle.

Avoiding Deeper Medical Issues

One of the best ways to keep your medical costs low is to not have a lot of them in the first place. Achieving this is really a matter of doing what your doctor recommends to stay safe and healthy. For instance:

·         Eat healthy foods. Making a point of eating healthy foods is one of the keys to staying strong. Food is medicine, as the saying goes. Consider the Mediterranean Diet as a great place to start eating better (check with your doctor first, of course, to make sure this works well for your particular health needs).

·         Exercise regularly. The CDC suggests getting 150 minutes of exercise per week, which breaks down to about 30 minutes each day. You should have a good balance of cardiovascular exercise and strength training.

·         Avoid falls. Falls can lead to some of the most serious issues for seniors – in fact, 95% of all hip fractures are caused by falls, and falls are the top cause of traumatic brain injury[4]. Both of those situations can send your medical bills skyrocketing. A medical alert system with fall detection is an excellent way to ensure that if you fall, you won’t have to face the dire consequences of waiting too long for help to arrive. You can press the button and get help right away, right when you need it most.

·         Take your medications properly. About 90% of seniors take one prescription drug regularly, and about 80% take two or more of them[5]. Taking those medications on time, every time, as recommended by your doctor can help you keep chronic conditions under control.

Staying safe on the go is important too, which is why it’s a great idea to always drive carefully, let friends and family know where you are going, wear appropriate footwear for the activity you are engaged in, and be aware of the weather of the day. Wearing a medical alert pendant designed for on-the-go use is a good way to ensure that if an accident or emergency occurs, you have the ability to summon help fast, because getting help quickly after an emergency or accident is another way to keep your medical bills as low as possible.