7 Ways to Lower Your Medical Expenses

Negotiate, ask for generics, and review your bills closely.

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Medical care in the United States is very expensive. According to 2009 data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, we spend about 17.6 percent of our gross domestic product on health care and it is far more than any other OECD nation. It's stunning how much money we spend on health care and how little we get for it.

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If you're hoping that the recent health care law will start saving you a lot of money, you may be right but it will take some time. Many of the biggest aspects of the bill won't take effect for a couple years but don't lose hope. There are still ways for you to lower your medical expenses using a few techniques I've learned over the years.

Maintain Your Health

The most obvious thing you can do to lower your medical expenses is to take care of yourself. Watch your weight and your blood pressure, eat healthy regular meals, and make sure you exercise regularly. Try to find activities you enjoy rather than slave away on a treadmill. If you are able to find something you enjoy, you're more likely to keep at it. There's a reason why gyms are packed in January and empty in April, they're boring.

Take Advantage of Preventative Care

Most health insurance plans cover preventative care such as regular physicals, eye exams, and dental check ups. Use these as often as is covered because preventative care is much much cheaper. Consider how much it costs to go to a routine dental cleaning ($10-20 co-pay) versus fixing a cavity (hundreds of dollars). Would you rather suffer the annoyance of an annual or bi-annual cleaning or have to suffer through a cavity filling or a root canal? As someone who has had cavities filled on numerous occasions, take the dental cleaning.

Ask for Samples

Doctors get courted by drug companies to prescribe their products and those companies will give doctors samples of the product. Whether it's a drug or just a pair of contact lenses, doctors are always happy to help out their patients with some samples to help lower the cost of care. In the case of contacts, sometimes it's a matter of trying out the pair and seeing if it's a good fit (and getting a pair of contacts you can wear for a week or a month). In the case of medicine, the doctor may give you enough to cover your needs so you spend nothing. It doesn't hurt to ask.

ER = Emergencies Only

Too many people go to hospital emergency rooms for routine reasons. It's like putting premium gasoline in a car that only requires regular unleaded - it might make you feel better but you are simply wasting money. Visiting the hospital emergency room is one of the most expensive things you can do and there are so many other options. If it's not an emergency, wait until you can see your regular physician. If it's a little more "urgent," find an "urgent care facility" that has medical staff ready to take you in. Only go to the ER if you have an emergency.

Ask for Generics

Doctors are used to prescribing brand name drugs because drug companies often have patents that last a long time, as long as 12 years. Doctors get used to referring to a drug by the brand name much like you would Xerox a piece or paper, blow your nose on a Kleenex, or Google something online. When you get a script for a drug, ask the doctor if it can be safely substituted with a generic version of the drug. If the doctor says no, ask why (it could be that a generic doesn't exist). Generic versions of a drug are often very inexpensive.

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Review Your Medical Bills

When you do get treatment, be sure to review the statements (sometimes called Explanation of Benefit) the medical insurance company sends you. Make sure that the medical billing was performed correctly because people, despite all their training, make mistakes. Many hospitals and doctors outsource their back office processing and when you consider how complicated this can be, it's not surprising that mistakes happen. You should work to correct these errors even if they don't cost you any money. Many insurance plans have annual and lifetime reimbursement caps and you don't want a mistake in billing to eat up your cap.

Negotiate with Doctors

It may seem taboo but try negotiating the price with the health care provider (the doctor, dentist, or specialist). Health insurance companies have already done this but if you are willing to pay out of pocket (and you know how much the insurance will cost you), you can try to negotiate with the provider to pay for the treatment in cash and up front. One of the biggest headaches they face is in collecting from insurance companies, whether it's complicated billing process or just the hassle of dealing with a large company, and they may be willing to negotiate if you pay in cash and up front. If you're creative, you can use a lot of these techniques to lower your medical expenses.

Jim Wang writes about personal finance at Bargaineering.com. When he's not tackling money issues, he's usually looking forward to his next vacation and writing about it at Wanderlust Journey.