I walked so much at New Orleans Jazz Fest last week that by the time I got home I was finally ready to address the nagging heel pain I’d had for months. Why had I waited? Because I’ve become cheap. I’m much more price sensitive now that my health insurance has a $3,000 deductible and I don’t have any corporate perks to subsidize out of pocket costs. It’s not like it was an emergency. Since I had time, I decided to do something different. I decided to shop around for healthcare the way I would if I were buying a new computer. I decided to price shop. Here’s how you can, too.
Question Your Defaults
Not surprisingly, it pays to do your research. My “default” healthcare facility is less than a mile from my house, is nationally recognized, and is home to any kind of doctor I could possibly need. But after a surprise bill earlier in the year, I’ve realized that it’s expensive (at least with my insurance.) So this time I decided to shop around.
In healthcare, there are three main prices that matter if you’re shopping around: the cash price, your price with an in-network provider, your price with an out of network provider. I’m not going to pretend it’s easy to find out any of these costs, but I was surprised to find out this week that it’s getting easier.
A year ago when I asked at my doctor’s office how much something cost, nobody in the actual office could tell me. I had to make a call, during business hours, to a billing office and talk to three separate people. This time, I started at my healthcare insurance website. I was pleasantly surprised to find a cost comparison tool for common procedures (including foot x-rays.) This tool took into account my plan and shared nearby providers and a price range for the service. My ‘default’ provider wasn’t even on the list (though a different tool estimated they charge a price that was 10x more.)
While healthcare costs are notoriously opaque, but it seems like that may be changing (a little, slowly.) Insurance and provider sites that used to be terrible are becoming passable. Comparison tools are surfacing to help people make better healthcare decisions (have you seen Medicare’s “What’s Covered” app, released early this year?) People like me (and you) are shopping around for better deals.
Other Options for Saving on Healthcare
Besides comparing costs ahead of time for non-emergency issues, there are a few more things you can do to contain health care costs.
Give Virtual Visits a Try
My insurance also covers virtual visits. I don’t remember actively looking for this feature when we bought insurance, but I plan to use it the next time the kids get a rash or if we want an assessment before deciding how to address a minor medical issue.
Consider Urgent Care Centers
If you need to be seen for something “today” but it’s not an emergency, consider using an urgent care center. Think ankle sprains, cuts, rashes, and eye issues. I went recently for a back issue that I knew wasn’t an emergency but which was affecting my ability to operate my shoes. They’re more ‘office-like’ than an emergency room, but you don’t need an appointment.
Get Prescriptions by Mail
If you rely on medication, you probably know about mail order pharmacy services. Having managed my mom and dad’s medication for years, it’s a little inconvenient and sometimes nerve-wracking to depend on your medication coming in the mail…but it’s significantly less expensive (more than 30% less in my mom’s case.) Sign up, if you haven’t.
Watch Out for Referrals
Your carefully researched in-network doctor or surgeon may refer you to out of network providers or may work alongside out of network providers. For example, your doctor may be in-network but the lab that tests the blood drawn during your appointment is not. Or your surgeon is in-network but the anesthesiologist is not. If you have the time, find out if you can use in-network providers for all of your care.
Find New Providers
I love my ‘default’ healthcare provider. My kids were born there. Each of my parents and in-laws has been treated for serious illness there. My medical records and primary care doctor is there. I feel a lot of gratitude and respect for what they do. But they can’t have my routine business for a premium cost anymore.
This week’s research showed me that my assumptions about access to healthcare costs were outdated. It is possible to find out (roughly) what a procedure, diagnostic, immunization, or treatment will cost.
Give it a try, and start shopping around!
Important Note: What works for me in Chicago, where there are lots of good choices for doctors, hospitals, and healthcare services, might not work where you live. Quality, training, and current technology matter! Keep those criteria in mind, too, while you ‘shop’.