9 ways you can lower your medical bills

Jeanie Ahn
Senior Producer/Reporter

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Getting medical help is supposed to make you feel better, but the bill you get afterwards can make you feel sick to your stomach. In fact, medical debt is one of the leading causes of financial stress for Americans, as one in four struggle to pay their doctor bills, according to a study by the Urban Institute.

But take heart, there are plenty of ways you can lower your medical expenses — and your blood pressure at the same time

First, find a fair price for the procedure you need. You can do this by checking out sites like HealthcareBluebook.com or NewChoiceHealth.com. Sites like these provide a range of what you can expect to pay based on where you live. Costs are typically higher in cities, so make sure to do a cost comparison outside of city limits. Using these quotes, you can shop around and rule out facilities that charge more than you can afford.

Next, find the most cost-effective facility. It’s not just your zip code that affects pricing, but the physical building where the procedure takes place that you’ll be charged a premium for. “Just because a procedure is more expensive, doesn’t mean it’s better quality care. The largest portion of the bill is based on the building or facility cost,” says Bill Kampine, co-founder of HealthCareBlueBook. Citing a report by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office on health care cost trends, Kampine points to the finding that payments vary wildly and there is no sufficient connection between the quality of care and higher prices.

In other words, a cataract surgery performed by the same doctor at an ambulatory surgery center could be half the cost of what you’d be charged at a hospital. So if you have a doctor in mind, it’s best to work with him or her to find the most affordable option.

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If you have health insurance, make sure your doctor, service and facility are in-network. The insurer’s website may be out of date, so take the extra step to call and confirm, getting a clear answer about what you’re responsible for out-of-pocket.  

If you don’t have health insurance, let the billing department know and see if they’ll offer you a lower rate because you are uninsured. Sometimes they will reduce the bill or work with you to set up a financial assistance payment plan. Last fall, NewChoiceHealth rolled out a new division called “Patient Assist” in which uninsured patients can work with their care coordinators to negotiate more affordable rates.

On top of that discount, there’s a good chance you can negotiate an even bigger discount by paying upfront in cash. Doctors’ offices prefer this because it saves them time and money from all the administrative work that goes into filing insurance claims.

Of course there are plenty of patients, for health reasons or emergencies, who haven’t had the time to research all their options and are now facing a balance they can’t afford. Before you panic, call up the billing department and request an itemized bill. Errors happen all the time — so be on the lookout for things like duplicate charges and inaccurate insurance codes that could’ve resulted in your claims being rejected. And be on the look out for a fraudulent practice called “upcoding,” in which a more expensive billing code is submitted so that you’re charged for a more costly procedure than you actually received or even needed.

“It’s all about understanding where those costs come from. Patients don’t understand, but you have a choice 99% of the time, even when you’re being told you don’t,” said Brad Nihls, vice president at NewChoiceHealth. So don’t be afraid to challenge any questionable charges on that itemized statement. Remember everything is negotiable — even your medical bills.

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