Ignoring health care could get costly

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Monday, March 9, 2009
— When you're pinching pennies, you might skip going to the doctor to keep the gas tank or refrigerator filled.

But holding off on care might be a costlier choice.

Area health care experts offered these tips on how to save money on health care:

-- Lead a healthy lifestyle. "Duh," you say. But ask any health care expert how to save money on health care, and they'll tell you to exercise, eat healthy, get enough rest and all the other things you know you should be doing.

"All those types of tips can help people maintain their health, which will pay off economically down the road," said Phil Dougherty, senior executive officer of Wisconsin Association of Health Plans.

-- Unless your needs are urgent or emergent, make an appointment with your regular family practitioner or internal medicine doctor.

"In most cases, you'll have a higher out-of-pocket co-pay or deductible for an Urgent Care or emergency room visit," said DuWayne Severson, director of sales and network development for MercyCare.

That's because you're using services on an immediate basis, which cost more than appointments with a family doctor for which your time is reserved, he said.

"It's a better use of your time, better use of your dollars, and really for everyone to use your family physician," he said.

-- Plan ahead—as much as you can—and compare prices. Use the Wisconsin Price Point System, www.wipricepoint.org, which now allows patients to compare costs for emergency/urgent care services and inpatient and outpatient procedures at hospitals across the state.

"It's one more way … of knowing in advance how much it's going to cost," said Mary Kay Grasmick, vice president of Wisconsin Hospital Association.

-- Nurse lines: Get your question answered without paying for a doctor visit. Experts will tell you the phone lines aren't meant to replace doctor visits, but they can give answers or peace of mind if you have to wait for a doctor appointment.

"Certainly, their primary functions are to help patients or enrollees understand the urgency of their condition, can help triage a situation, help direct them to urgent care or recommend they simply follow up with primary care physician," said Phil Dougherty, senior executive officer of Wisconsin Association of Health Plans.

Nurses at the Rock County Health Department are available to take health-related calls during business hours at (608) 757-5440 or (608) 364-2010, and callers can leave a message after hours.

Dean Health System offers a 24-hour nurse line for Wisconsin residents. If you're in the Madison area, call (608) 250-1393; outside the Madison area call 1-800-57-NURSE (1-800-576-8773).

Patients on MercyCare can call the 24-hour Mercy HealthLine (608) 756-6100 or 1-888-39-MERCY (1-888-396-3729) to speak to a nurse.

-- Read your health insurance plan carefully. That might seem like a no-brainer, but following your plan to the letter will save you money.

"The most important tip for consumers is to understand their coverage," Dougherty said.

Talk to customer service or other resources available through your employer, he said.

Know the perks from your health care provider such as free classes, discounts on gym memberships and other services.

-- After reading your plan, you'll likely find preventive care services that are nearly or fully covered. Such services include annual checkups and screening tests for things such as colonoscopies and pap smears.

-- Be a participating patient.

"Do not be afraid to ask a physician or the hospital what the cost of something is," Grasmick said. "'Do I need it today? Can I wait? What are the pros/cons?' Have enough information as a patient/consumer to make a knowledgeable decision."

Ask about charity care policies and whether you qualify.

-- Take advantage of your county health department or other community agencies.

"People don't know about us," said Karen Cain, nursing director/interim health director at the Rock County Health Department. Most of the time, people think of the health department as a place that helps only low-income residents, but Cain said they serve all residents.

"We're the best-kept secret in Rock County," she said.

The department offers childhood, adult and international travel vaccinations. Adult vaccines vary in price, but childhood vaccines are $5.

The department also does well water testing and lead testing for children, which can prevent more costly medical bills. Also available: HIV testing, tuberculosis skin test for people older than 60 and vision and hearing screenings.

Another cost saver: Free walk-in clinics from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays at the Janesville office, 3328 N. Highway 51, and from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays at the Beloit office, 61 Eclipse Center. Nurse visits are also available by appointment from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Cain said the clinics aren't meant to take the place of regular doctor visits, but nurses can give answers and discuss the next treatment step.

"It might prevent some people from having to go to the doctor," she said.

-- Turn to the Internet. The Web has a wealth of answers to medical questions on sites such as WebMD.com or MayoClinic.com.

"Most of these Web sites are getting much, much better," Grasmick said.

She said sites sponsored by physician/health organizations are more trustworthy.

Patients also can use technology to reach doctors. More providers, such as Dean, are using MyChart, which allows patients to exchange e-mails with their doctors, said Dr. Dan Staddler, a family medicine physician at Dean Riverview Clinic.

-- Take drug companies up on their offers for discount coupons if you can't afford a prescription. You hear it in their advertising, Grasmick said, so it's important to ask.

"Test them out, write to them … see if you get a break," she said.

-- If you're struggling to pay a bill, "be very upfront with the billing department. Work with them as a partner …" Grasmick said.

Last updated: 9:55 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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