As most of us know, spending time in the bed isn’t the worst part of being sick.  For many Americans the toughest part of health problems is paying for them. Approximately 14 percent of America’s Gross National Product each year goes to pay for healthcare. And, brother, business is good. The for-profit hospitals and drug companies aren’t in the business to be good Samaritans. They are in the healthcare business because it is highly profitable. No, I’m not for socializing our medical and care-giving apparatus. And, I am generally comfortable with many of the tenets of capitalism. But, I am also increasingly troubled by the way too many of our sickest people are not getting the care they need. 

According to a 2005 report in the journal, Health Affairs, half of bankruptcies are caused by medical costs and illnesses. While I am not fully convinced this is true (many bankruptcies that occur after medical problems can be traced to bad decisions that were made before the health troubles began) I will agree that medical costs have been the final blow for many families. This is furthered evidenced by the fact that some 75 percent of these people began their illnesses with some form of health insurance coverage. 

The trouble is, insurance rarely covers all the losses caused by a health problem.  There are deductibles, limits, exclusions — to say nothing of collateral expenses like travel, over-night stays, baby-sitting, and lost income.  ABC News reported that in 2007, the average family of four with PPO insurance coverage still spent around $5,100 per year in co-pays, premiums, and deductibles.

Below are three ideas that you might find to be effective ways to cut or avoid some of the health costs that confront many of us.

1. Shop around. Who buys a car or a house or an education without price comparing? But most of us never think about shopping for our medical products and services. Why not ask your doctor if your lab test can be run at a cheaper (equally qualified) independent lab instead of the more costly hospital lab? You might want to check with your insurance company. These days many insurance companies have price comparison tables at their web sites where you might find less expensive suppliers. Also, there are some reputable on-line pharmacies which can help you save big bucks on drugs.  If you are taking a drug on a long-term basis consider price comparing it at several of the major retailers.  Then go to some mom and pop pharmacies in your area and ask if they would give you a discount in exchange for your long-term purchases of that drug.  Always look for cheaper generic drug options.  Sometimes you need to ask your doctor to be extra thoughtful as he prescribes—to help you save money this way.  He should know if a generic will work equally well for you.  Lastly, don’t be shy.  Ask your doc if he has some drug samples to spare.  Lots of physicians receive sample from the pharmaceutical companies which can help you determine whether the drug will benefit you—before you pay for a bottle of pills.

2. Negotiate. According to a Harris Poll, in 2005, two thirds of the people who attempted to negotiate medical, dental, or hospital bills actually got reductions. (Of course, the likelihood of “getting a deal” on elective surgery is far less—as it should be.) You might ask your health insurance company (or, a friend’s) what they pay for a certain procedure.  Then personally ask your doctor if he’ll sell it to you for the same price.  After all, he wants to keep your business—it doesn’t hurt if he knows that you shop around and are price conscience.  (Note: Remember, insurance companies get discounts because they deliver a lot of volume to the providers. There may be contractual reasons that preclude your provider from giving you the same discounted pricing.)  If possible, pre-discuss and ask for a “cash in advance” discounted price.  Much of the wasted time in the medical profession is spent trying to collect bills. Look at it from their side of the fence. Which is better: To get 70 to 90 percent of the bill in advance; or have to try and collect 100 percent after the fact? The least you can do is ask. And the worst they can say is “no.”  But, what if they say “yes?”