Healthcare is one of the most expensive line-items in many of our budgets. In fact, the average American spends around $10,000 per year on healthcare, and this figure is expected to continue to rise.
With as expensive as healthcare generally is, it’s important to find ways to save money on healthcare costs.
Health is an incredibly important aspect of life. It’s so vital that there’s really no point to pursuing financial independence if we neglect our health along the way – so it’s not an area to skimp on.
That said, there are several ways to decrease costs while maintaining quality. Below, I’ll discuss 6 tips to save money on healthcare costs that don’t require you to sacrifice your health.
Find a Primary Care Provider
The first tip to save money on healthcare costs is to establish a primary care provider (PCP).
With an increase in options to get care – such as walk-in clinics, urgent care clinics, etc. – some people are forgoing a primary care provider in favor of getting care for specific symptoms or concerns.
However, developing a partnership with a provider who knows you has many benefits. Research has shown that primary care leads to decreased outpatient visits, emergency room visits, inpatient hospital admissions, and surgeries.
Finding a good family practice provider can improve your health and decrease your cost of care. Developing a relationship with someone who knows (and cares for and about) you can have a long-reaching positive impact.
Although it hopefully will not be relevant to most of us for a very long time, having a relationship with a trusted provider is also incredibly important when facing the hard decisions about serious medical concerns and end of life issues – both of which have the potential to have serious financial (and other) impacts.
Is it Necessary?
Americans undergo more imaging procedures, such as MRIs or CT scans, than do people from other countries. While there is definitely a role for imaging in many scenarios, the fact remains that many imaging studies are unnecessary, unhelpful, costly, and potentially dangerous.
For example, experts note that earlier use of imaging for low back pain without associated concerning neurological symptoms is not associated with improved outcomes, but does increase the use of invasive procedures (which may not be beneficial).
A great resource to guide conversations with your provider about whether tests or procedures are required is the Choosing Wisely initiative from the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation. This initiative seeks to advance a national dialogue on avoiding unnecessary medical tests, treatments and procedures. In the example of low back pain, the Choosing Wisely recommendations provide a great overview of why you probably don’t need an X-ray, CT scan, or MRI.
Of course, these are general guidelines and any decisions about tests need to be made with your provider, but recognizing that many tests are not helpful, may cause additional harm, and cost money, should encourage you to question whether they are necessary.
In my personal experience, I have multiple sclerosis (read my story here), and my neurologist initially recommended a yearly MRI. After several years of unchanged MRIs, I was able to get him to agree to increasing the time between MRIs to every 2 years.
This goes back to developing a relationship with someone who knows and understands you and your specific values and needs. Because my neurologist knows me well and understands that I prefer to avoid excessive imaging and intervention, and because he also knows that I have access to care immediately if I need it (through him), he’s more likely to agree to decrease the testing and be more conservative in our interventions.
Where is it the Cheapest?
Finding out the cost of a healthcare procedure is an incredibly difficult task.
Take it from me – even as a nurse practitioner who orders these tests, it can be nearly impossible to find out what the fee for it is. That is because facilities will have different fees based on the insurer (or lack thereof), and they typically are not advertised.
There are some sites that can help you discover the cost of various procedures (here, for example) and you should, of course, be in touch with your insurance company as well.
If you do not have insurance, or the procedure you’re undergoing is not covered, you should ask if they offer a discount for early payment. I’ve received up to 10% off of medical bills for paying within 30 days.
Is there a Generic Option?
Another tip to save money on healthcare costs is to look for the generic version of your medication.
Generic drugs are the same medication, strength, dosage form, and route as brand-name drugs, often at a significant cost savings. The Federal Drug Administration inspects facilities that manufacture these drugs in the same way that they do brand-name drugs, to help ensure safety and quality.
You can see a great overview of information about generic medications here.
Is There a $4 Formulary Option?
Many major retail pharmacies, including Target, Walmart, and Walgreens, offer a $4/$10 ($4 for a 30 day supple, $10 for a 90 day supply) formulary.
While not all medications or classes of medications are available on these formularies, it’s possible to find certain medications (or a comparable one) for a much lower cost in this way.
For example, the antidepressant escitalopram would cost around $25 (at a minimum) for a 90-day supply (cash pay, without insurance), but citalopram, a similar drug in the same class, is available on the Walmart formulary at $10 for a 90 day supply.
If medication costs are a concern for you, it’s worth talking to your healthcare provider about whether a similar drug is available at a lower cost.
ER vs. Urgent Care
As a nurse practitioner working in the emergency department, I frequently see patients come in with illnesses or injuries that could be more quickly, cost-effectively, or appropriately treated in a different setting.
There are several reasons that patients come to the emergency room. They may be concerned that their illness is truly critical or life-threatening. They may not have insurance, and recognize that the law (specifically, the Emergency Medical Treatment And Labor Act, or EMTALA) requires emergency departments to stabilize and treat everyone with a medical emergency, regardless of their ability to pay.
However, some patients present to the emergency department simply because they don’t recognize that there are other, and sometimes better, options.
This is where walk-in clinics, convenient care centers, and/or urgent care centers, come in. For the purposes of this article I’m using these terms interchangeably – simply to refer to a clinic or center where same-day care is provided for minor illness or injury.
These centers are typically significantly less expensive than an emergency department visit (often by 50% or more) and are able to provide care for a wide range of conditions. If your primary care provider does not offer same-day services, these can be excellent options to receive high-quality, low-cost care.
The range of services provided by these clinics varies widely. Some, such as CVS’ Minute Clinic, offer care for minor cuts, blisters, and wounds, bug bites/stings, sinus infections, and so on. They also offer services like travel vaccinations, camp physicals, and weight loss consultations. They accept many insurances, and also provide clear and up-front pricing, something that can be more difficult to obtain in the hospital setting.
Other urgent care settings may provide care for more complex conditions. For example, where I work, our urgent care can do stitches for simple lacerations, splinting for uncomplicated fractures, lab work, etc.
There are certain symptoms that always require a visit to the emergency department. These include (but are not limited to) chest pain, shortness of breath, weakness or numbness on one side of the body, slurred speech, or head injuries. These may be signs of a more serious issue that would require care from a specialist, hospitalization, or surgery. Make sure that you know which hospitals and clinics are in your insurance network so that you can receive care there whenever possible.
Healthcare is an important topic and not one to be taken lightly.
While I would never recommend that you take the cheaper way out in every instance, there are a lot of ways that you can decrease the cost of your healthcare expenses while still maintaining high quality care!
Look to save money on healthcare costs by establishing a primary care provider who knows you and can help you make the best decisions for your health, not undergoing unnecessary procedures and understanding the costs of those procedures, taking generic medication or utilizing a $4/$10 option, and going to the emergency room only when necessary.
Healthcare is expensive, but with these tips you don’t have to let it cost you any more than it already is.