10 secrets for saving money and staying safe in the doctor's office

Insider advice you probably won't get from your physician or insurance company

Published: June 29, 2015 02:30 PM

If you pay thousands out of pocket for health care, you’re not alone. Twelve percent of Amercians spent more than $5,000 ouf of their own pockets in 2013, according to a recent Consumer Reports survey. And that doesn't even include prescription drugs or insurance premiums. “The high cost of health care is gobbling up Americans’ pay raises,” says Lisa Gill, Consumer Reports’ drugs editor. “Our survey also shows that a large majority of people are worried about the those skyrocketing costs, and want more information on cost and quality.”

To help consumers get that kind information, Gill recently spoke at Spotlight Health, part of the Aspen Ideas Festival, and identifed Consumer Reports' top 10 tips for getting the most from your health care dollar.  

1.  Your insurance may not offer the best deal for your medications

All chain drugstores, big-box stores, Target, Wal-Mart, and club stores such as Costco offer hundreds of generic drugs at deeply discounted prices. In some cases, you may be able to find prices as low as $4 for a month’s supply or $10 for a three-month’s supply, which is likely lower than your insurance co-pay. Don’t have a Costco membership? No problem. You can use their pharmacies without a membership in all states.

CR's drugs editor, Lisa Gill, speaking at Aspen Ideas Festival. photographer, Dan Bayer

2. Different pharmacies in the same area may charge wildly different drug prices

Shop around for the drugs you need and ask for discounts. Many people don’t realize that they can haggle over the price of drugs. “You wouldn’t think that buying a drug is like buying a car,” says Gill, “but you can often negotiate the price at an independent pharmacy.”

3. These three screening tests could do more harm, than good

Doctors are ordering more screening tests than ever, in part because they can bill for them separately. But the tests are often ordered unnecessarily and can lead to further needless and expensive testing that may also put your health at risk. Follow the links here to find out more.

4. Skip treatments for low testosterone or “Low-T”

Unless you’ve been diagnosed with a condition called hypogonadism, which has symptoms such as decreased facial and body hair and the development of breast tissue, drugs for “Low T” are unnecessary and come with a host of dangerous side effects.

5. Avoid taking opioid pain drugs such as Vicodin, Percocet, and Oxycontin

Among other problems, opioids send nearly half a million people to the emergency room every year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is very limited evidence that they relieve pain or are safe over the long term. In addition, their risk of addiction is underappreciated, Gill says.

6. Get health care providers to see you as a person, not as a patient

Hospital medical errors and infections are linked to 440,000 deaths annually. In a Consumer Reports national survey, those who said they “rarely” received respect from hospital medical staff were two and a half times more likely to experience a medical error. There are steps you can take to reduce your risk such as asking doctors and nurses not to use medical jargon and asking them to sit down while speaking to you.

7. Skip dietary supplements

Avoid dietary supplements, especially those for sex enhancement, body building and weight loss. Supplements in these three categories are frequently associated with safety problems, not least for containing dangerous prescription or experimental drugs. In the U.S., supplements do not have to be tested for safety or effectiveness before being sold, exacerbating these concerns.

8. Don’t take antibiotics unnecessarily

Excessive use of antibiotics is breeding resistant “superbugs.” These bacteria cause infections that can’t be controlled even with multiple drugs. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria infect more than 2 million people in the U.S. annually, killing at least 23,000. “While it’s essential to take antibiotics for certain bacterial infections, many conditions, such as ear and eye infections, usually go away without them,” says Gill. “And those drugs are not necessary for illnesses such as colds or the flu.”

Read more about the Rise of Superbugs and when you need antibiotics and when you don't.

9. Insurance companies are stockpiling huge financial reserves instead of passing the savings on to you

Regulators require insurance companies to keep some money in the bank, but a new Consumer Reports analysis found that many non-profit insurers have socked away enormous surpluses—much higher than required by regulators. In some cases, they reach a billion of dollars or more,” says Gill. “That’s a bitter pill for consumers to swallow as their insurance premiums rise.”

10. You can fight back against “surprise” medical bills

A 2015 national survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center found that nearly a third of Americans have been hit with surprise med­ical bills after a hospital visit or planned procedure. Some people report getting shocking and unexpected bills even after double-checking that the hospital is in their insurance network. This is due to the practice of “balance billing,” which allows doctors who may not be in the same network as the hospital to bill patients for the portion of their charges the insurer didn’t pay under out-of-network coverage. “If you do wind up with a surprise bill, it is worth fighting back,” Gil saysl. You can also negotiate; ask the doctor to lower your bill or recalculate it at the in-network rate. Take steps to minimize the risk of receiving these bills, like calling your insurance company to double-check you’re using in-network providers instead of checking the website, which may have errors or be out-of-date.

Visit Choosing Wisely for more information about tests, treatments, and procedures to question or avoid.

—Lauren Cooper

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