7 strategies to lower your health care bills.

By Jennifer Breheny Wallace

Two years ago, Laura Leon, 46, of Valley Stream, NY, wanted a second opinion on treating her torn tendon. When her doctor accidentally sent her out of network for the required MRI and X-ray, she was stuck with a $400 bill. "I just assumed those tests would be covered," says Laura. We've all been there with health care surprises. And with pricey premiums and skyrocketing deductibles, even a routine exam can bust a budget. Luckily, the solution is hiding in plain sight. The strategies that you're already using to save in other areas of your life can also be applied to your health care expenses. Time to put your shopping smarts to work.

What you're already doing: Reading the Fine Print. Knowledge is power. Just as you know the ins and outs of your favorite store's policies (from returns to rewards), you need to fully understand your insurance plan.

Your savings Rx: Study your deductible, co-pays, the cost of going out of network and which drugs are covered. And check in advance with your insurance company to ensure that any referrals, procedures or services are covered and in network. It could mean the difference between a $25 co-pay and a $500 bill.

What you're already doing: Checking Prices. You always scout out costs in advance with weekly circulars. But medical prices also vary—a procedure that runs $1,000 at one place could be three times that across the street.

Your savings Rx: Research ahead of time through your insurance provider or sites like Healthcarebluebook.com, which provides a "fair price" estimate of what you should expect to pay in your area if you shop around. You'll be better prepared to budget or even negotiate if necessary.

What you're already doing: Bargaining. From the dealership to the thrift store, you know how to ask for a better price. Time to do it with your health care. "Don't be intimidated," says Pat Palmer, founder and CEO of Medical Billing Advocates of America. "Many providers are willing to accept a negotiated rate. Just get everything in writing."

Your Savings Rx: When going out of network (or if uninsured), call the billing office in advance to ask for a written estimate. If it's higher than the price you researched, ask them to meet the lower rate or request at least 35% off billed charges. You can also ask the doctor or hospital if they offer "prompt pay" discounts for payments made in full, usually within 15 days of receiving your bill. "You could save from 10% to 50% or more," says Palmer.

What you're already doing: Understanding Your Options. You wouldn't head to the most expensive grocery store in town just because you couldn't find avocados at your usual spot. Neither should you use the emergency room as a fallback when your kid has a fever. Knowing where to go when can help avoid future sticker shock.Your savings Rx: For most people, visiting a clinic or urgent care center will cost considerably less than the ER for the majority of non-life-threatening illnesses or injuries, says Marty Rosen, executive vice president and cofounder of Health Advocate.

What you're already doing: Going Digital. You rely on apps for coupons, price checking and sales alerts. Now there are numerous downloadable options to help you make affordable choices for your family's health care.

Your savings Rx: Use apps like Doctor On Demand or HealthTap to text or video chat with a doctor for a fee comparable to a co-pay. While not a replacement for a doctor's visit, these apps can be a time- and cost-effective way to get answers for non-urgent illnesses, like a hacking cough or bad rash. And before you visit the pharmacy, download GoodRx, which finds the lowest prices for specific drugs in your zip code.

What you're already doing: Reaping the Rewards. There's no better feeling than racking up points to nab future discounts and freebies. Now you can enjoy some sweet incentives for getting in shape—no spending required.

Your savings Rx: Many employers and insurance providers reward employees and members who work toward better wellness with healthy eating and regular exercise. Typical prizes might include fitness trackers, movie tickets, digital cameras and even hotel stays. Along with the fun perks, you'll improve your health—a win-win, since that should lower future medical expenses.

What you're already doing: Checking the Math. You're protective of your spending. That's why you should give your next medical bill a good going-over. "Errors are common," says Palmer, "so review carefully to avoid being overcharged."

Your savings Rx: Google billing codes to ensure that you were charged correctly for the services you received, and question any item description that doesn't make sense.