How many of you look forward to visiting the doctor? Doctor visits can be a turn off for many reasons. It’s uncomfortable and embarrassing to wear the paper gown with your normally covered areas exposed. You might hear something you don’t want to know, and it can be really expensive. Most of us try to make it through the appointment as quickly as possible so we can get back to familiar ground. The downside is that when when we get home, we have no idea what the doctor told us and we don’t understand the bill when it shows up in the mail. There are some simple steps you can take to be an advocate for your own health care, insuring that you get the most out of doctor’s advice and don’t pay more for things than you have to.
1. Know Your Insurance Plan
I am continually surprised at the number of people who show up for an appointment and have no idea about their insurance plan and don’t carry a card. Telling the receptionist that you have insurance doesn’t work. There is no crystal ball that lets the doctor’s office know what insurance plan you belong to and what it covers. In the US, all medical insurances are required to pay for preventative services, like your annual physical, immunizations, well child care, colonoscopies, and mammograms when indicated. However, you must make sure you are at least one year out from the date of service and that you use the proper facility for auxiliary testing, so ask before your visit.
For non-preventative visits, you need to know:
- What your deductible is
- If you have a copay
- What percentage you have to pay after your deductible is met
Also, always carry your card and present it when you arrive. If you don’t have a card or know what your insurance covers, be prepared to pay. It is not the responsibility of the doctor’s office to verify your coverage if you have no information to give them.
2. Know Your Medical History
I realize people hate to fill out forms every year, but health problems and changes could have happened since your last visit. Make sure to know what medicines and supplements you take, and whether they are obtained via prescription or over the counter. Know if any of your immediate family has health problems. Don’t ever lie on the history form. Doctors aren’t there to judge, and I promise they’ve seen it all. If you drink a case of beer a day, don’t say you have 2 drinks a week. You might get the wrong diagnosis or medicines that cause terrible side effects.
3. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask About Costs
Even though you generally go to the doctor for advice, that doesn’t mean what they tell you has to be set in stone. If your doctor recommends a specific test or writes a prescription, it’s okay to ask about costs. If you don’t have insurance or know you have a high deductible, ask if there is a generic alternative or a sample you might try. Many drug companies offer patient assistance for low income individuals. If you need lab testing, there might be a community health fair coming up where you can save hundreds of dollars on blood work. Obviously if it is an emergency, you might not have a choice, but it never hurts to ask. I guarantee your doctor would rather find a cheaper alternative than have you end up not filling the prescription or not keeping follow up appointments due to cost.
4. Ask for a Cash Discount
If you don’t have insurance or haven’t met your deductible, ask if the doctor offers a cash discount. If you know there is no way you will meet your deductible, ask the office not to bill your insurance. They are not required to unless you are on a state aid program like Medicaid. Just keep a few rules in mind. It is not the doctor’s fault that you don’t have insurance, so don’t ever be mean or sarcastic. The cost of health care is a serious debate that we need to have with insurance companies and politicians who set the rates, but it isn’t something the billing department has any control over. You can bet that offices are much more eager to help if you are nice as opposed to yelling obscenities and making snide comments. If you are lucky enough to get a cash discount, pay it promptly with cash or check. By saving the office the time and cost of billing insurance or trying to collect a bill after the fact, you can often save quite a bit.
5. Look Over All Medical Bills and Insurance Remittances
Don’t ever assume your medical bill is correct. Often doctors’ offices outsource billing. The person who does the bill may be in a different state and have no idea what happened other than the codes they receive. A common mistake occurs when you go in for a preventative service like a physical, and the doctor finds something wrong, like high blood pressure. Often the code for the problem, high blood pressure in this case, gets ranked above the preventativecode for the physical. Instead of paying in full, the charge gets applied to your deductible. If you only went in for a physical, you should not have to pay for this visit. This is where being informed helps if you call and ask questions. Again, be nice. Everyone makes mistakes, and it really isn’t that hard to re-bill.
Although it probably isn’t at the top of our list of fun things to do, doctor visits are a necessary part of life. If you have a good relationship with your doctor and keep up with your health care on a regular basis, you can hopefully take care of medical issues before they become big problems. By following these five steps, you can become an advocate for your own health care.
Have you ever gotten cash discounts or caught billing errors with health care services?
Editor’s note: Kim offers some great tips on how to try and have a better control your health care costs. Being someone that has experienced billing errors, I can attest first hand to the necessity of looking at your medical bills. She also has a great point of asking for a cash discount. We’ve been able to get 15-20% off on the delivery of all of our children by simply asking.
The above is a guest post from Kim at Eyes on the Dollar. Kim is a private practice optometrist who has been keeping eyes healthy and fighting insurance companies for years. In her spare time she blogs about her journey toward achieving 20/20 financial vision. You can also follow her on Twitter.
Photo courtesy of: Fernando Audibert