medical expenses

According to CNBC, the average household spends around $5,000 annually per person on medical expenses. Since these expenses make up a hefty amount of our annual spending, dedicating some time and attention to understanding your options is a big factor in saving money in the medical world. We've put together the best practices to take advantage of in order to save money on medical costs.

Negotiate Medical Bills

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I learned something a few weeks ago listening to one of my favorite podcasts, the ChooseFI podcast. It is possible to negotiate your medical bills! If only I had known that before paying about $10,000 out-of-pocket for the birth of my children.

The Provider

Hospitals and providers will often negotiate with you on the bill. The reason: They don't want to lose out on money. As the guys over at ChooseFI explain it, most hospitals have a fairly short turnover time between trying to collect on a bill internally and turning it over to a debt collector. Hospitals, in turn, lose out on a lot of money because even if the debt collector is successful in getting the bill paid by the debtor, they never get the original bill amount back due to fees and commissions from the collector. Therefore, it's in the hospital or medical provider's best interest to negotiate with you.

According to Steve Neeleman, a board-certified physician, the best time to negotiate your medical bills is in the morning a few weeks after you received the bill.

If you have the option to pay the bill in full, ask for a paid-in-full discount. Be kind and courteous, but start with a lowball discount offer. Just like in any haggling, if they say no, you can try to slowly go up and meet at a middle figure.

Set up a payment plan

There is nothing wrong with telling the billing department that you simply cannot afford to pay the hospital bill. You can ask them to reduce it, to be put on a payment plan (which often doesn't charge any interest), or ask about any available programs that may help you pay it off. Modest Needs is one such organization. They are a non-profit organization that gives financial assistance to individuals and families who work and live above the poverty level and therefore don't qualify for social assistance. Other growing sources of funding are sites like Go Fund Me, whereby many people ask for donations on medical-related expenses.

Thoroughly check over medical bills

Medical bills look completely foreign to most people. One public opinion study found that 72% of patients don't fully understand what they owe. I, for one, never can understand most of the medical codes and jargon listed on medical bills. And unfortunately, most people, like me, are apt to simply hand over our hard-earned cash and pay whatever that "amount due" box tells us to. However, the Patient Advocate Foundation estimates that at least half of all medical bills contain errors, so it's definitely worth taking a closer look at your bills.

Understand your bill

To start, it's best to always ask for the itemized statement for your bill to see exactly what you are being charged for. Just by doing so, you might find you were erroneously charged for a service or item. If you believe something is wrong, you always have the option to file an appeal against your health insurance for any denied claims.

Next, research current procedural terminology (CPT) used in coding medical bills. You can perform a Google search for individual codes on your bill. Fair Health is a great resource for looking up estimated costs on medical procedures.

Check to see if you were billed for an inpatient or outpatient service. For example, check to make sure you weren't wrongfully charged as an inpatient for an overnight visit to the ER, as this usually should be charged as an outpatient, which costs significantly less.

Match up the medical codes on your bill with the insurance claim to make sure they match. Likewise, check for upcoding errors. This occurs when an unwarranted higher diagnostic pay code is entered on your bill. Some examples are when codes for complex anesthesia are used when simple sedation was performed, or a procedure was billed as being performed by a doctor when it was actually done by a nurse.

A great resource for people that don't want to do the research themselves is CoPatient. They will do the digging and negotiating for you. However, they do collect a fee from the money saved, but only if they are successful.

Shop around for Medical Care

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Compare Insurance Options

It's important to understand your options when choosing a health care plan. With employer-sponsored coverage, medicare, individual insurance, Medicaid, and children insurance plans, it can be confusing trying to figure out which is your best option. Before making any decisions, you should look into each of your options and compare costs and benefits. Usually, employer-sponsored plans are cheaper than individual plans. However, you shouldn't assume that the health insurance plan offered through your employer will be a better option than choosing Medicaid.

Compare Hospitals

Not all hospitals are equal. Nonprofit hospitals almost always charge patients less than their for-profit counterparts. If possible, it's best to find out how much your hospital options will cost you beforehand. The New York Times has a great tool that lets you search for hospitals near you and compare average costs.

Research HSAs and FSAs

Health savings accounts (HSA) are pre-tax savings accounts that allow you to set aside money for medical expenses. The benefits: You won't pay taxes on that money, and it will grow in interest! Many employers will even match the money you put in your HSA or give an employer contribution to the HSA.

A flexible spending account (FSA) is similar to HSAs in that the money is pre-tax for medical expenses and often entails employer contributions; however, in most instances, funds in an FSA must be used by each year-end, or the money will be forfeited.

The United States spends more money on healthcare than any other country. Unfortunately, experts don't believe the considerable increases in health care costs will lessen anytime soon. In fact, studies believe that healthcare spending will increase by about 5% annually from 2020-2027. The key takeaway from all of this is to understand your options and rights when paying for medical costs.

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FAHMIDA AZIM / "Johar Joshanda" / Editorial Illustration for Eater

You keep making the same mistake. When you're in the drug store picking up contact solution or toilet paper or a candy bar or condoms or a pregnancy test or hair dye or however you spend your week day evenings, you pass a sale on the invariably overpriced cold medicine and just walk on by.

Stop it. Stop it right now.

Cold and flu season is already hard enough on your body, your mental health, and your wallet, with drug stores carrying an average of 300 cold medicine products at any given time. Why are there so many products? It's not about what you need to remedy symptoms but about your spending power as a consumer, with reports tallying more than $30 billion spent on over-the-counter medication in 2017. The cornucopia of cold and flu products usually results in choice paralysis, as you stand in the aisle facing a barrage of information until you finally select whatever packaging looks more trustworthy or whichever one's had the most memorable commercial.

Don't fall for it. Consider these tips from pharmacists, doctors, and legions of people who barely get by on living wages but who've learned to hack the system during cold/flu season:

1. Buy Generic

Consider this: Pharmacists and doctors who have studied the ingredients in brand name medicine often buy the generic versions for themselves (up to 90% of the time, according to some surveys). With the power of Dr. Google (and all those skills acquired from those spot-the-differences games as a child), you can save a lot of money by just studying the ingredients on the boxes of brand name and generic versions. Learn the generic names of your medication, and you can save 20% to 50% on your cold medicine.

2. Search for Manufacturer's Coupons

If you simply prefer brand names and take comfort in the extra placebo effect, by all means indulge yourself. But you can also go to the manufacturer's website to find coupons. While you're waiting in the check-out line, take one moment to search on your phone to find that brand name medications like Zyrtec, Allegra, Tylenol, and Advil usually offer coupons and savings clubs through their websites.

3. Sign Up for a Discount Program

Similarly, discount programs like FamilyWize, GoodRx, and WellRx are easy-to-use apps that bring discount codes straight to your phone. These programs work with common drug stories like Walgreens, CVS, Target, Rite Aid, and Walmart.

4. Timing (Stock Up!)

Most manufacturers start offering coupons in late October, and when combined with in-store coupons, you can save double. So don't walk past sales on cold medicine just because that office bug hasn't hit you yet. It's best to stock up! Also keep in mind that cold medicine does expire, so check for boxes with the latest expiration date you can find.

5. Ask Your Pharmacist

A little known fact is that pharmacies will create their own saving programs to incentivize customers to shop there. As Caroline Carpenter, financial adviser and creator of the website mycouponexpert.com, told USA Today, "Almost all pharmacies do this, but you have to ask. 'Why?' They don't advertise it." Additionally, some pharmacists will even match competitors' prices if you can prove you can find it cheaper elsewhere.

6. Shop Smart: Don't Duplicate Ingredients

With similar ingredients appearing in multiple cold remedies, it's possible to overdo it and cause more harm than relief. So another reason you should familiarize yourself with the ingredients list is to make sure you don't go overboard with the acetaminophen (Tylenol). That won't help your wallet or your liver.

Ken Majkowski, chief pharmacy officer of FamilyWize, advises, "Most products have multiple ingredients that do the same thing. You just need two: one for day and one for night." Ideally, you should stock up on a non-drowsy decongestant for the daytime and a nice, sleepy Nyquil knock-off for the night.

7. Ask a Doctor for Free Samples

The next time you check in with a doctor to make sure your cough is just a cough and not the black lung or throat cancer (because who doesn't fall into a WebMD spiral from time to time?), ask for a free sample instead of a good-job lollipop. Doctors' offices often have an overstock of common medications like ibuprofen, and there's no harm in asking.

The reality is that medicine is undoubtedly, unfairly expensive, and it's only getting worse. Lea Prevel Katsanis, a former pharmaceutical marketing executive and author of Global Issues in Pharmaceutical Marketing, says, "Drug companies employ many scientists, physicians, marketing people, and others who really are motivated by helping others, but there are some industry leaders who don't get it. They just don't understand that when they raise the price of a drug by 300 percent, they get pushback."

But the good news is: We're all in this together (aside from the 0.8% of the world's population who hold 44.8% of the world's entire wealth, but screw them). So, yes, always wash your hands, get as much sleep as you can, and eat well, but when that cold inevitably hits you, demand to talk to the pharmacist and your local doctor. Self-advocate and demand the best healthcare you can get, and don't stop asking until you get it. As the wise slogan of the Area 51 raid said, "They can't stop all of us." With enough discontent, the system will be forced to change.

It's a pretty good feeling to get that tax return check in the mail, but a pretty bad one to realize you forgot to include a tax deduction that would have lowered your tax bill or increased your returns. With the ever-increasing complexity of the tax laws, filing taxes just gets more and more complicated. To help simplify things, we assembled a list of some of the most commonly overlooked tax breaks you should take advantage of.

Student Loan Interest

Student loan payments can be a significant part of your monthly expenses, but luckily you can claim up to $2,500 in interest paid on student loans for higher education. This deduction is available to you if you're paying interest on a student loan for yourself, your spouse, or a dependent child.

Health Insurance Premiums

Health care is expensive, and only getting more expensive. Luckily, the IRS takes this into account. Deductible medical expenses have to exceed 10 percent of your adjusted gross income (AGI) to be claimed as an itemized deduction in 2019, but if this is true of you, you're looking at some major savings.

Social Security Tax By the Self-Employed

Every employed American has to pay into social security, including the self-employed, who are then eligible for a deduction on a portion of this tax. Usually, employers pay a portion of social security, but when you're self-employed you're paying the portion of the employer and the employee, which amounts to 12.4% on up to $128,400 of earnings.

Unusual Business Expenses

It may seem obvious that you can write off the cost of business expenses, but you may not know how many different kinds of business expenses that include. As Turbotax points out, "A junkyard owner, for example, might be able to deduct the cost of cat food that encourages stray cats to hang around and keep the mice and rats away. A bodybuilder got approved to deduct the body oil he used in competition."

Charitable Donations

While most taxpayers probably know that you can write off major charitable donations, many don't know that you can also write off smaller ones. Additionally, it's possible to write off expenses paid out of pocket that allowed you to spend time working for a charity, such as hiring a babysitter for your children so you can volunteer at a soup kitchen. Or, if you drove your car to charitable activities, you can deduct 14 cents per mile, plus parking and tolls paid.

Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)

While a large portion of Americans qualify for the EITC, 25% of people don't claim it. This is actually a tax credit, ranging from $519 to $6,431 for 2018. You likely qualify for this credit if you're low income, or if you recently lost a job, took a pay cut, or worked fewer hours during the year.

Medical Costs

According to the affordable care act, taxpayers under 65 who accrue medical expenses greater than 10% of their annual income can earn a significant tax deduction. To reach this 10% threshold, you can tally up medical expenses that may not seem obvious, like transportation costs to and from the hospital.