$$$$ = SPEND
$ = SAVE
$$$$ Keep your coverage
Resist the temptation to go without health insurance after a layoff or job switch. One unexpected trip to the hospital could easily set you back thousands of dollars. An appendectomy, for example, costs upwards of $20,000. "Even with a high-deductible plan, you'll pay less out of pocket than if you have no insurance at all," says Ankeny Minoux, president of the Foundation for Health Coverage Education (FHCE). "Carriers negotiate rates with hospitals. As an uninsured patient, you could pay double or even more."
$ Cut COBRA costs
When you lose your employee insurance—regardless of the reason— your company is usually required to let you continue your coverage through COBRA. The monthly premium for a family, however, averages around $1,200. Depending on your circumstances, you could spend less with private insurance for one or all members of your family. "Many people don't realize that families can mix and match health plans," says Minoux. For example, if your child has a preexisting condition like asthma and you don't want to switch doctors, you could enroll him in COBRA but buy a less expensive plan for yourself. For help running the numbers and choosing the best option for your family, visit coverageforall.org.
$$$$ Stick with a doctor you trust
Many grocery stores and pharmacies have walk-in clinics that charge less than a traditional doctor's office (maybe even less than your co-pay). But forking over a few extra dollars to visit the same physician ensures better care in the long run. "A primary care doctor has been tracking the details of your health history over time and therefore can make better-informed decisions about your treatment," says Cynthia Koelker, M.D., author of 101 Ways to Save Money on Health Care (plume), and a family physician in Akron, Ohio.
$ Question follow-up visits
When a doctor asks you to come back—whether in a week, a month or six months—ask why. "If it's to go over test results or check in after a mild illness, a phone call or an e-mail should be enough," says Dr. Koelker. But you shouldn't skip the appointment if your physician wants to check on a chronic condition like diabetes, or a more threatening short-term problem such as strep throat or mononucleosis.
$$$$ Buy brand names (sometimes)
If you regularly take a blood thinner or medication for seizures, asthma, bipolar disorder or a heart condition, you may be better off sticking with the brand name when the generic is released. "These medications require a consistent blood level, and your body may not react to a generic in the same way," says Dr. Koelker. Otherwise, generic is usually fine.
$ Ask for a freebie
Physicians often have a stockpile of drug samples. Request a few; three months' worth would be a 25% savings for the year. Coupons may also be available from your doctor or pharmacist. Check drug-company websites for printable vouchers to use at the pharmacy.
Q. My employer offers a high-deductible health plan (HDHP). Is this a good option for families?
A. Paying up to 50% less for monthly premiums is hard to resist, but there are two considerations before making the switch. First, an HDHP should be paired with a health savings account (HSA). "The money you put in an HSA is tax-free and rolls over year to year if not spent," says Ankeny Minoux of the FHCE. Second, you'll be paying for all medical expenses from the HSA until you hit the yearly deductible (up to $2,500 for families).
Originally published in the September 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.