Health Care Consumerism: 22 Ways to Cut Health Care Costs

The way we purchase health care is unlike most other purchases we make. Many Americans will search through a newspaper for a coupon that saves them 50 cents at the local supermarket. However, when it comes to health care—a far more complex and expensive service—we rarely ask questions or consider all the options that could save us time and money.

Learn to shop for value when it comes to health care. With little effort you can save thousands of dollars on your medical bills. Share these helpful tips with your employees regularly to promote educated decisions when choosing health care.

1.     Let’s make a deal. Ask your doctor, hospital or dentist if they will accept less. Studies show that the majority of individuals who bargain succeed.

2.     Know how much it costs. You will be better armed to negotiate discounts when you know the real costs of care. You can find rates on the websites of large insurers like UHC, Cigna and Aetna.

3.     Pay in cash. You can often save up to 10 percent on your bill by paying in cash up front. Doctors lose thousands of dollars each year on credit card processing fees, unpaid bills and collection fees.

4.     Look at your bill closely. You will often find mistakes. Keep track of your visits, tests and medications, and compare them against your bills. Request a corrected bill if you find an error and notify your insurance company.

5.     Follow instructions. Follow your health care provider’s instructions for medications. Most medications work most effectively when they are used according to doctor’s instructions. Ignoring instructions could result in additional prescription costs, extra trips to the doctor or even hospitalization.

6.     Visit a retail health clinic. Retail health clinics are growing in numbers. They are popping up in high-traffic retail outlets in metropolitan areas around the country. While these clinics lack the personal nature of seeing a family physician who knows your complete medical history, their appeal is the convenience and low prices advertised for all to see.

7.     Stay in-network. Your medical costs can increase greatly when you visit a provider not in your plan’s network. Make sure your primary care doctor and any specialists you may need to see are in your network whenever possible.

8.     It doesn’t hurt to ask. If you must see a specialist who isn’t within your network, call your insurance company’s pre-certification department and explain why you must use an out-of-network specialist. Often times you can get your insurance company to agree to pay at in-network rates in order to avoid the expensive appeal process. If that doesn’t work, ask your specialist to accept the in-network rate.

9.     Fight back. If your claim has been denied, start with a phone call to customer service. If that doesn’t work, follow your plan’s appeal process. Remember to document everything and keep copies.

10.     Choose your health plan wisely. Sticking with the same plan year to year may not be the smartest option. Anticipate your family’s medical expenses and look closely at each plan option to find the most appropriate and cost-effective one for you.

11.     Consider an HSA. Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) are growing in popularity. They are combined with a high-deductible health plan. The high-deductible policy protects you from the cost of a catastrophic illness or prolonged hospitalization. You control the savings account and use it for small and routine health care expenses. You will save about $1,500 in taxes for every $5,000 you put into an HSA. Funds you don’t use grow tax-free and can be rolled over from year to year.

12.     Take advantage of flexible spending accounts. A flexible spending account, or FSA, is an employee benefit program that allows you to set aside money on a pretax basis for certain health care and dependent care expenses. That means you keep more of your money. For every $1,000 you put in, you’ll save approximately $300 in taxes.

13.     Don’t skimp on preventive care. Be sure your child gets routine checkups and vaccines as needed, both of which can prevent medical problems (and bills) down the road. Also, adults should get preventive screenings recommended for their age to detect health conditions early. Many of these services are now provided at no cost through employer-sponsored health plans.

14.      Visit a dental school. Look into local dental schools where you will be treated by dental students, who perform the dental treatment closely supervised by their instructors. Expect to pay about 20 to 60 percent of what you’d pay for the same treatment by a private dentist.

15.     Don’t forget to floss. Studies have demonstrated that those who floss regularly have a decrease in periodontal disease, bad breath and cavity incidence. The cost of periodontal disease treatment can range from $200 to $2,000 per procedure.

16.   Discount contacts. Discount websites and stores can provide the exact contact lenses prescribed by your eye doctor, in factory-sealed packaging, at savings of up to 70 percent off what you would pay at the retail level.

17.   Chill out. Over 60 percent of doctor visits are for stress-related conditions. Studies show that relaxation techniques are effective in controlling anxiety, enhancing the immune system and reducing conditions such as high blood pressure, substance abuse and chronic pain.

18.   Quit smoking. On average, health care costs are $1,600 per year for a smoker. Plus, if you quit smoking you can expect to save approximately $1,800 a year on the cost of cigarettes alone.

19.   Live a healthy lifestyle. Focus on eating nutritiously, cutting down on fast food and getting more physical exercise. Striving toward a healthier lifestyle and maintaining a healthy weight can drastically reduce future medical conditions and diseases.

20.   Wash your hands. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hand hygiene is the most important factor in preventing the spread of germs. In fact, health experts estimate that 80 percent of common infections are spread through hand contact. Save hundreds of dollars a year on cold and flu treatments.

21.   Get a second opinion. Save thousands of dollars a year on cutting-edge medical tests, which usually are not covered by insurance by following the guidelines recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force – www.ahrq.gov/clinic/uspstfix.htm.

22.   Think twice about the emergency room. Don’t ever go to the emergency room (ER) when your regular doctor or an urgent care visit would suffice. If you or your child is feeling ill on Friday, get into the doctor that day to avoid overpaying at the ER during the weekend.

Providing your employees with resources to help them understand the complex health care system and pricing can benefit your employer-sponsored health plan tremendously. The more educated we are, the smarter decisions we can make when it comes to health care. Wise health care consumerism not only leads to more money in your employee’s pocket, but also more savings for you, the employer. If you are looking for innovative ways to manage your group health costs, please contact us. We have several clients of all sizes who have experienced exceptional success in educating employees and managing costs through a health care price transparency tool we offer. We welcome the opportunity to discuss if this tool woud be right for you employees as well.

Live Well, Work Well – Back to School Edition

As summer winds down and the kids head back to school, we all make adjustments as we transition back to our “normal” routines. If you’re like most parents, you are probably just as stressed as your child about the start of a new school year, and we want to provide some practical ways to make the transition as smooth as possible for your family.

  • Re-establish routines – By setting a regular bedtime and mealtime for your children, you prepare them for the structured schedule they will need to follow at school. Begin the routine a few weeks in advance, so they are wide awake for breakfast on the first day of school.
  • Freeze a few dinners – Keep a couple of meals in your freezer for the first few weeks of school. This way you won’t have to stress about cooking and will have more time to spend with your kids.
  • Create a homework space – Designate and clear a special area where your children will be able to do their homework in peace. During the weeks leading up to school, consider offering crafts or projects they can do area to help them get used to working there.
  • Attend parent-teacher night – Take the time to visit with your children’s teachers so you know what to expect in the coming year.
  • Be enthusiastic – The best thing you can do for your children is to be excited about the new school year. When you are confident, your children will be confident, too.

While preparing your children for the first day of school can really help their transition, it is only part of the equation. Especially during the first few weeks, set aside time each night to talk about how your children are feeling about school and positively reinforce the experiences they’ve had—this will help your children adjust to their new grade.

As usual, as the kids head back to school, we also notice unwelcome germs coming home with them. Whether your children catch something from a friend at school, or you find yourself surrounded by co-workers with a cold, we have a few remendies for you and your loved ones. The best news – all of them can be found in your pantry, saving you money and time visiting the pharmacy. **As always, use your judgment when deciding whether or not to seek professional medical help.

Honey: A spoonful of this wonder-ingredient will not only help to ease a sore throat, but applying it directly to a minor burn and covering with a bandage can serve as an antibiotic and speed healing times.

Oatmeal: Not just a nutritious breakfast, oatmeal can be used to soothe a rash or irritated skin. Create a poultice by putting cooked, cooled oatmeal in a cotton cloth and applying to the affected area, or steep uncooked oatmeal in a warm bath to treat the entire body.

Toothpaste: The next time you or a loved one is stung by a bee, consider reaching for a tube of toothpaste. Just a dab of toothpaste on a bee sting can quickly relieve the irritation.

Baking soda: This versatile ingredient soothes sunburn when added to a lukewarm bath, relieves the itching from insect bites when added to a cool bath, and can relieve an upset stomach when half a teaspoon of it is dissolved in a glass of water.

Olive oil: This common cooking ingredient can soothe an earache for most adults. Put two to four drops of warm oil in your ear to lessen the pain until you can contact a medical professional.

Ginger: For hundreds of years, ginger has been used to combat nausea and upset stomachs. Simply steep a 1-inch slice of this root in hot water and drink to ease a bellyache.

As we head into fall, MedCon will be keeping you up to date on everything health-care related, so be sure to continue stopping by our blog. Please reach out to us should you have any questions.

Health Care Reform Supreme Court Ruling – What It Means For Employers

On June 28, 2012, after much anticipation and speculation, the U.S. Supreme Court essentially upheld the entire Affordable Care Act (ACA) as constitutional. The main issue in the case was whether Congress had the authority under the U.S. Constitution to enact ACA’s individual mandate. Beginning in 2014, the individual mandate requires most individuals to obtain health care coverage or pay a penalty.

Because the Court upheld ACA, employers must continue to comply with ACA’s reforms.

  • ACA changes that have already been implemented will remain in effect, such as the requirement to cover adult children until age 26 and the requirement for non-grandfathered plans to cover certain preventive care services without cost-sharing.
  • ACA’s provisions that are not currently in effect will continue to be implemented as planned. For example, effective for 2013 plan years, participants’ pre-tax contributions to health flexible spending accounts (FSAs) will be limited to $2,500 per year.

While it is possible that changes will be made to ACA through future legislation or court rulings, ACA is the health care reform law currently in effect. Thus, employers should continue to prepare for ACA changes that become effective in 2012 and 2013. Employers should also keep in mind the ACA reforms that will take place in 2014.

ACA REFORMS – 2012 AND 2013

Annual Limits

Beginning Jan. 1, 2014, group health plans will no longer be able to impose annual limits on essential health benefits. However, until then, certain minimum annual limits are permitted. Unless a plan received a waiver of the annual limit requirements, its annual limits on essential health benefits should be set at least as high as the following amounts for each applicable plan year:

  • $750,000 for plan years beginning on or after Sept. 23, 2010, but before Sept. 23, 2011;
  • $1.25 million for plan years beginning on or after Sept. 23, 2011, but before Sept. 23, 2012; and
  • $2 million for plan years beginning on or after Sept. 23, 2012, but before Jan. 1, 2014.

Form W-2 Reporting Requirements

Beginning with the 2012 tax year, employers that are required to issue 250 or more W-2 Forms must report the aggregate cost of employer-sponsored group health coverage on employees’ W-2 Forms. The cost must be reported beginning with the 2012 W-2 Forms, which are due in January 2013. This requirement is optional for smaller employers for the 2012 tax year and until further guidance is issued. This reporting is for informational purposes only; it does not affect the taxability of benefits.

Women’s Preventive Care Services

Effective for plan years starting on or after Aug. 1, 2012, non-grandfathered plans must cover specific preventive health services for women without cost-sharing, such as deductibles, copayments and coinsurance. These services include well-woman visits, breastfeeding support, domestic violence screening, STD screening and contraceptives.

Exceptions to the contraceptive coverage requirement apply to religious employers.

Medical Loss Ratio Rebates

Fully insured plans may receive rebates in August 2012 if they qualify for a rebate from their health insurance issuers due to the medical loss ratio (MLR) rules. The MLR rules require insurance companies to spend a certain percentage of premium dollars on medical care and health care quality improvement, rather than administrative costs. Employers may receive rebates from issuers in the form of a premium credit, lump-sum payment or premium holiday, if permissible under state law. Any portion of a rebate that is a plan asset must be used for the exclusive benefit of the plan’s participants and beneficiaries. This may include, for example, reducing participants’ premium payments.

Summary of Benefits and Coverage

Plans and insurance issuers must provide a summary of benefits and coverage (SBC) to participants and beneficiaries. The SBC is intended to be a concise document – no more than four double-sided pages – providing simple and consistent information about health plan benefits and coverage in plain language. A template for the SBC is available, along with instructions and examples for completing the template and a uniform glossary of terms.

Plans and issuers must start providing the SBC as follows:

  • Issuers must provide the SBC to health plans effective Sept. 23, 2012.
  • Plans and issuers must provide the SBC to participants and beneficiaries who enroll or re-enroll during an open enrollment period beginning with the first day of the first open enrollment period that begins on or after Sept. 23, 2012. Thus, many plans will need to include the SBC in their open enrollment packages for 2013.
  • For participants who enroll in coverage other than through an open enrollment period (for example, newly eligible individuals and special enrollees), plans and issuers must provide the SBC beginning on the first day of the first plan year that begins on or after Sept. 23, 2012.

If either the plan or issuer provides the SBC to a participant or beneficiary in accordance with the timing and content requirements, both will have satisfied their SBC obligations. Thus, a fully-insured plan will satisfy the requirement to provide an SBC to an individual if the issuer provides a timely and complete SBC to the individual.

In addition, once the SBC requirement becomes effective, plans and issuers must provide 60 days’ advance notice of any material modifications to the plan that are not related to renewals of coverage. Notice can be provided in an updated SBC or a separate summary of material modifications.

CER Fees

Self-funded plans and health insurance issuers must pay comparative effectiveness research fees, or CER fees, to help fund ACA’s new Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute. The CER fees apply for plan years ending on or after Oct. 1, 2012. The CER fees do not apply for plan years ending on or after Oct. 1, 2019. For calendar year plans, the research fees will be effective for the 2012 through 2018 plan years.

For plan years ending before Oct. 1, 2013 (that is, 2012 for calendar year plans), the CER fee is $1 multiplied by the average number of lives covered under the plan. The CER fee will increase to $2 for the next plan year. For plan years ending on or after Oct. 1, 2014, the CER fee amount will be indexed for inflation.

Sponsors of self-funded plans and issuers must report and pay their CER fees by July 31 of each year for the plan year that ended during the preceding calendar year. The first possible due date for reporting and paying CER fees is July 31, 2013.

FSA $2,500 Contribution Limit

Effective for plan years beginning on or after Jan. 1, 2013, an employee’s salary reduction contributions to a health FSA offered under a cafeteria plan are limited to $2,500. The $2,500 limit will be indexed for cost-of-living adjustments for 2014 and later years.

Elimination of Retiree Drug Subsidy Deduction

Employers that receive the Medicare Part D retiree drug subsidy have been able to take a tax deduction for their prescription drug costs, including costs attributable to the subsidy. Also, these employers do not have to pay tax on the drug subsidy amount. Effective for 2013, the deduction for the retiree drug subsidy will be eliminated.

Additional Medicare Tax Withholding

Effective Jan. 1, 2013, an additional 0.9 percent Medicare tax will apply to high-income individuals. Employers are required to withhold the additional Medicare tax on an employee’s wages in excess of $200,000 ($250,000 for married couples filing jointly).

Health Insurance Exchanges – Notice of Availability

Employers must provide all new hires and current employees with a written notice about ACA’s health insurance Exchanges and the consequences if an employee decides to forgo employer-sponsored coverage and purchase a qualified health plan through an Exchange. This notice requirement generally becomes effective as of March 1, 2013. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has indicated that it intends to issue model Exchange notices.

More agency guidance is also expected on this notice requirement.

ACA REFORMS – 2014

Additional ACA coverage mandates and reforms become effective in 2014. For example, effective for plan years beginning on or after Jan. 1, 2014, group health plans and issuers may not:

  • Impose pre-existing condition exclusions on any covered individual, regardless of the individual’s age;
  • Have a waiting period for coverage that exceeds 90 days; or
  • Apply any annual limits on essential health benefits.

In addition, effective in 2014, ACA’s state-based insurance Exchanges are scheduled to be operational. Also in 2014, the individual mandate will become effective, as will ACA’s “pay or play” penalties for employers. Under the pay or play rules, certain employers with at least 50 full-time equivalent employees will face penalties if one or more of their full-time employees obtains a premium credit through an Exchange. An individual may be eligible for a premium credit either because the employer does not offer health care coverage or the employer offers coverage that is either not “affordable” or does not provide “minimum value.”

FUTURE OF HEALTH CARE REFORM

Although ACA survived a major hurdle when the Supreme Court upheld it, changes may be made to the health care reform law in the future by the courts or by Congress. Legal challenges to ACA’s validity are likely to continue. For instance, Catholic-affiliated institutions have already filed lawsuits challenging ACA’s contraceptive coverage requirement on the basis that it violates their religious freedoms. Also, Republican lawmakers are continuing with their efforts to eliminate or modify some of ACA’s controversial provisions. However, major legislative changes to ACA will likely require a significant shift in power in the legislative and executive branches of government and, thus, will depend on the outcome of the November 2012 elections.

MedCon Benefit Systems, Inc. will continue to monitor the status of the health care reform law, and will provide updated information as it becomes available.