YAKIMA, Wash. — The average U.S. resident spends about $9,000 on health care each year — some $1,000 for services paid for out of pocket.
But national spending — almost double what other wealthy countries pay — doesn’t seem to be doing much for health, as life expectancy in the U.S. is just 79.3 years, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the World Health Organization. That’s the lowest rate among other advanced economies such as Switzerland, Australia and Canada.
As health care costs rise and health insurance deductibles also increase, more and more costs have to be covered by the consumer.
Here’s a look at six (mostly) easy ways to reduce your health care costs:
Know when to go the emergency room and if you should use an ambulance to make that trip
Checking your symptoms on the internet could convince even the most level-headed person they have cancer or rare diseases such as achalasia — a disorder of the esophagus that makes it challenging to push food down the throat and into the stomach.
“The problem with the internet is most of the time it convinces you, you have a more serious situation than you do,” said Lori Kelley, senior director of quality at Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic.
The better idea is to call your doctor’s office or a triage service — people available to assess for immediate medical needs — available through many insurance plans, Kelley said. If your insurance offers such a service, the information can usually be found on the back of your insurance card or on the company’s website.
Your doctor likely can get you in for an appointment or analyze your symptoms over the phone to determine if you need to go to the emergency room immediately or if you can wait for an appointment.
“The average ER visit is more than $1,000,” said local SignalHealth Chief Medical Officer Tanny Davenport. “But there are great after-hours services (urgent care centers) that can help you. Most people just don’t think about them or use them.”
On that call, your doctor or a nurse also can help you determine whether you can drive yourself to the emergency room or if you need to call an ambulance.
Ambulance costs vary wildly, from $15 on some insurance plans to thousands of dollars out of pocket. No local Yakima emergency services costs were available Friday afternoon. But the potential high cost of an ambulance ride makes it imperative that — if you want to save money — consumers ensure it’s absolutely necessary.
You’ll want to call an ambulance if you have a serious burn or bone or eye injury that inhibits your ability to drive a car safely. Additionally, chest pain or difficulty breathing often signifies an emergency situation that would require a driver or a ride in an ambulance. When in doubt, call 911.
Check for prescription discounts
There are several ways you could be paying more for your prescriptions than necessary. Some pharmacies can’t or don’t let you know the medication is less expensive if you pay cash rather than use insurance.
This often is the result of “gag clauses” in some pharmacy contracts that prevent pharmacists from telling customers the cash price for medicine may be less expensive than the insurance copay unless they are specifically asked by a customer. Gag clauses generally are stipulated by pharmacy benefit managers, an intermediary between insurance and health care providers that negotiates rebates, operates mail order prescriptions and oversees other tasks.
And a generic brand drug often works just as well as their name-brand counterparts. If you’re concerned about the cost of the medication your doctor prescribes, ask if there’s a generic option that’s suitable. If it’s a medication the provider prescribes often, they’ll likely have some understanding of the costs. If not, they’ll be able to tell you the questions you should ask your pharmacist.
“I know our pharmacy director says if a price is too high, it’s acceptable for a patient to ask for a cheaper alternative,” Kelley said. “They can work with their provider to see if there’s a less expensive option.”
To check the price, either to ask for an alternative or elect to pay cash, Davenport recommends GoodRx, a website that will tell you the cash price of drugs available at many pharmacies. The site sometimes also has coupons available for certain prescriptions.
“I have a patient that has monthly medication that the cash price is $20. But with insurance they’re paying $100 or $140,” he said. “That’s definitely something that helps the consumer save a buck but doesn’t compromise their health.”
Additionally, there may be discount cards and other coupons available online. Simply searching for “pharmacy discount card” brings up several viable options. But check first to see if your pharmacy accepts the card.
Don’t pay your bill before looking at the charges and verifying their accuracy
A number of medical bills contain inaccuracies and overcharges, so a closer look is necessary before paying for that root canal or MRI.
This is especially important because making a payment first and finding out you paid too much later is much harder to fix.
Be patient, go over the charges on your bill and call your provider or insurance company with any questions.
Check out (and use) telehealth options
Many insurance plans are beginning to cover telehealth appointments — “seeing” a doctor by phone, video chat or other telecommunication device.
Even though 90 percent of employers offer it as a benefit, only about 3 percent of employees use it, probably because 8 of 10 people haven’t even heard of it, according to telemedicine company Avizia and the National Business Group on Health.
Often, virtual appointments are used for minor illnesses or routine follow-ups, such as treating colds, allergies and the flu, and stress management, anxiety and depression. But staying in your pajamas isn’t the only benefit using a telehealth service.
According to The Alliance for Connected Care — a nonprofit organization that advocates for safe, high-quality telehealth technology — the average telehealth visit ranges from $40 to $50, while a traditional office visit ranges from $136 to $176.
Try a high-deductible health savings account, also known as an HSA
A high-deductible health savings account may not be the best option for people with chronic health conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes. And it may not be a good choice for older people whose risk for illness, such as heart disease and cancer, often increases with age.
But for younger and healthy people, a HSA might be the most cost-effective insurance program.
The premiums are lower because consumers who choose this type of health plan have a higher deductible. That means they pay more of their health care costs upfront before insurance covers them. That’s why, while it may be a gamble, this type of health insurance coverage is best for people who don’t anticipate having high health care costs.
But through the program, you can set money away — usually through a payroll deduction — in an account that is similar to a checking account and use a special debit card to pay for medical-related charges.
These plans usually include low or no-cost preventive health care services — such as a yearly checkup and some annual tests and immunizations — that benefit patients through regular and early-detection health care. The lower premium of these plans means that for many healthy people, they can reduce the up-front cost of health care and put away money for future emergencies, Davenport said.
“You will have bankrolled all that money to your HSA so when you have an illness that requires you to use it, you have the money,” Davenport said.
You probably already know this one, but it bears repeating: Stay healthy.
Experts say the best way to reduce out-of-pocket health care costs is simply to stay healthy. That means checking all the usual boxes, such as drinking more water and limiting alcohol use, eating healthier foods and limiting your intake of unhealthy fats and sugar, quitting smoking and washing your hands.
Kelley said taking reasonable safety precautions — wearing a helmet when riding a bike, motorcycle or horse; wearing a seatbelt; child-proofing your home — also falls into the category of making healthy choices.
And taking advantage of low or no-cost health care exams — usually a benefit of your health insurance — can help you catch health problems early and reduce long-term costs. Find a list of preventative exams needed at your age — there are several online — and talk with your doctor about which would are best for you.
“The most basic way to reduce your health care costs is having preventative checks,” she said.