Know Your Coverage
6. Take Advantage of Extras
Your health plan may offer valuable services you don't hear much about, so poke around its Web site to learn what's available, says reader Kimberly Hoody, of Phoenix. Some carriers, for example, have nurses on call 24/7. They can tell you how to safely remove a splinter or whether or not your child's cold symptoms warrant an immediate doctor visit (and another co-pay, ka-ching!). Some plans also offer discounts on acupuncture, gym memberships, massage treatments, and weight-loss programs.
7. Get Regular Checkups
Don't skimp on well-child checkups just to save money, says Jessica Banthin, a healthcare expert at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. These exams are usually inexpensive or are fully covered by insurance, and they help your doctor detect health problems early. Routine vaccines will also lower your child's risk of illness -- and your risk of facing high medical bills.
8. Look for Special Services
Many health plans have programs for patients with ongoing conditions like asthma or allergies, including discounts on preventive care, helpful newsletters, and more. Reader Jaimee Starr's son Austin, 8, has asthma and gets chronic bronchitis in the winter months. After talking with her health-plan representatives, the Springfield, Ohio, mom learned she could buy a home nebulizer from them for just $55 instead of renting one from her pharmacy for $180. Health-plan reps also steered her to a drugstore that offered lower prices on her son's asthma medication.
9. Flex Your Spending
If your employer offers a flexible spending account (FSA), you'd be nuts not to use it. FSAs are tax-sheltered accounts that you can use to pay for out-of-pocket medical costs such as office and prescription co-pays. Reader Lisa Chavez-Melo, a human-resources professional in Albuquerque, New Mexico, suggests "guesstimating" what you'll spend on medical expenses each year and putting about 20 percent less into your account so you don't have to worry about scrambling to find last-minute ways to spend it before it disappears. (FSAs are a "use it or lose it" plan and the money must be used within the year.) Some good ways to spend that last bit of FSA money: replacement glasses or contacts, dental cleanings, and even certain over-the-counter items like bandages, infant pain reliever, and contact-lens solutions.
10. Read Bills Carefully
Up to 50 percent of your doctor or hospital bills may contain mistakes that end up costing you money, says Jane Cooper, president of Patient Care, a consumer-advocacy group in Milwaukee. Something as simple as an incorrect billing code could prompt your insurance to pay less than expected or even reject your claim. Other common errors: mistakes in an account number, claims with incomplete information -- even claims sent to the wrong insurance-company address by a doctor. Read your benefits booklet carefully to make sure your plan is paying all it should. If you catch an error, send a certified letter to your insurer. Follow up in a few weeks to make sure the mistake is corrected.
11. Don't Accept "No"
If your insurance company won't pay for a service you think you deserve, don't just give up. Appeal the decision. If you're denied again, contact your state insurance commission. That agency can mediate a dispute between you and your insurance company. If you win, you could save yourself hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars.
12. Remember to Network
When making an appointment, always double-check that the doctor is still in your insurance plan's network. (Many come and go.) And ask to see in-network providers when you go to the hospital or an urgent-care center. Just because a facility participates in your plan doesn't mean every professional (the nurse-practitioner or radiologist, for instance) does. Also, if you need to see a doctor when you're out of town, call your insurance provider's toll-free phone number to find out the best way to get services that will be covered.
13. Split the Cost
If you need extensive dental services, ask your dentist about starting the work in December and finishing it in January. Depending on your dental-plan benefits, you may get better coverage by splitting the cost between the two plan years.