Cheap Shots

By Anna Sachse

Posted April 9, 2009 in Mind Body Spirit

Last week we offered tips on how to look good for less in this ugly economy. This week we are going to cover how to keep your medical bills down in this sickly economy. Perhaps it’s a little backwards to give priority to aesthetics over health, but hey—this is SoCal, is it not? 

Regardless, it doesn’t take a crappy economy for medical bills to plunge your finances into a world of hurt. Here are eight ways to stay afloat no matter what year you’re living in.


1. Don’t be an idiot. This means that the best way to prevent giant medical bills is to take care of yourself. In response to the current tough times, a gaggle of UCLA cardiologists recently announced the following heart (and whole-body) health tips: Keep up the exercise; avoid salty, fatty foods; stop smoking and reduce stress. To help maintain a healthy weight and stave off disease, get 30 to 60 minutes of exercise daily doing free stuff like running, walking, dancing, playing soccer or basketball, etc. Eating at home and making meals from scratch will cut down on calories as well as your food budget. Ditching smoking is also better for your wallet, along with your heart, lungs and skin. And even though times are stressful, insist on finding a positive outlet, such as exercise, meditation or hanging with friends. Stress has been linked to all sorts of problems from chronic headaches and increased susceptibility to colds, to ulcers, hair loss and gum disease.


2. Pay attention. To avoid financially hazardous surprises, right now, before anything bad has happened, set aside 30 minutes and read over your insurance policy from start to finish. Have a general understanding of what’s covered and what’s not covered. Then, before any procedure takes place, ask the medical provider what the fee is, if there any hidden costs and what the fees might be for typical complications. Verify that these services are covered by your insurance.


3. Ask about options. Confirm that all the recommended testing and procedures are medically necessary, especially if you have no insurance or expensive co-pay. Your doctor may be able to suggest a cheaper alternative.


4. Request a discount. A 2005 Harris Interactive poll found that 70 percent of people who spoke with a hospital were successfully able to negotiate a lower price for their medical bills. The same went for 64 percent of those who negotiated with a dentist, 61 percent with a doctor and 56 percent with a pharmacist. Even 45 percent were able to negotiate a discount with their insurance company. At the very least, you might be able to set up an extended plan that allows you to make smaller, more manageable payments over a longer period of time.


5. Pay in Cash. Offering to pay upfront in cash can take 10 to 30 percent off your bill. It reduces the medical provider’s credit card fees, paperwork and manpower, and demonstrates that you are clearly able to pay. 


6. Double-check your bill. According to, billing errors are common at hospitals and other health care facilities, so ask for an itemized bill and check it for accuracy. Frequent errors include: inflated room and incidentals charges; duplicate fees for tests and procedures; inflated operating room time; incorrect dates of service and human errors that result in the wrong billing code.


7. Say yes to cheap drugs. Buying from a doctor-recommended mail-order pharmacy and/or in bulk will often lead to savings. Try asking your care provider if they have free samples of anything from over-the-counter cold medicines to asthma inhalers or antibiotics.


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