7 Ways to Save on Health Care Costs

A new season brings new insurance decisions, new sports teams—and newly sprained ankles. Keep costs under control with these tips from experts.

When we hit the grocery store or shop online, we're always ready to scan a coupon or plug in a promo code to save a few bucks. But when it comes to health care costs, we're programmed to believe things cost what they cost. If you have insurance, chances are you're paying a premium and a copay, not thinking about potential wiggle room. If you're uninsured, you might be avoiding visits in the first place.

But these health care experts say there are actually tons of ways to save money on everything from prescription meds to health screenings—that is, if you know where to look and what to ask. Here, they lend their tips on how to shave a few dollars off that next health care bill.

01 of 07

Seek Out a Screening

If your child's school requires a sports physical (this may start around 7th grade), you might be able to bypass a trip to the pediatrician. Some schools offer physicals in the gym that are performed by medical professionals. More commonly, your child might get routine eye and hearing exams as well as a scoliosis check, which can save you money or alert you to a potential problem early on, says Kim Buckey, VP of client services at DirectPath.

02 of 07

Tap Urgent Care

Urgent Care is perfect for less serious situations that still require immediate attention. "Heart attack? Head to the ER. Broken bone or earache? You're fine at urgent care, and you'll pay less," says Kate Ashford, Medicare specialist at NerdWallet. (For example, Medica Choice Network estimated in 2010 that a visit for allergies cost about $97 at an urgent care center and about $345 in the ER.)

But Ashford cautions that you should never sacrifice care just to save a buck. "If the situation is life-threatening, the ER is where you want to be," she says. "If it's something serious, but no one's in immediate danger, urgent care will be the cheaper place to go, and you'll probably get seen sooner."

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03 of 07

Search for Perks

"Many insurance companies offer members sessions with a wellness coach, financial adviser, therapist, and other experts," says Carena Lowenthal, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian and wellness coach in New York. If you're strapped for time, consider telenutrition consults, which allow you to chat via phone or internet. Buckey adds that many Employee Assistance Programs will offer three to eight free counseling sessions. (Check your plan to see if massage is covered, too!)

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04 of 07

Mind Your Meds

Shop around. "Costs can vary greatly from mom-and-pop pharmacies to stores like Costco or Target," says Lowenthal. Use price comparison tools like SingleCare or GoodRx to see if you're getting the best price for your prescription meds before buying at the local pharmacy. These free sites do the legwork for you. "There can be substantial savings by filling prescriptions at a different store," Ashford says.

Also, see if it's possible to buy prescription medication in a three-month supply. Research has shown you can save almost 30 percent in out-of-pocket costs by opting for a 90-day vs. 30-day supply.

05 of 07

Nix Excessive Exams

Request copies of your medical records when you see the doctor, then snap photos and store them on a flash drive. Or scan and upload them to your phone or tablet. This way, you'll avoid taking repeat (pricey) tests, and the information may help other doctors treat you without having to order additional tests. Keep in mind, you may have to repeat annual exams anyway, to get the latest info on the state of your health, Buckey says.

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06 of 07

Cover College Kids.

If going on a parent's plan isn't possible, or if a student is over 26, many colleges offer student health insurance plans, in which financial aid can help pay for basic coverage. Under the Affordable Care Act, students who don't live in the same state as their parents can fill out an individual insurance application, and the cost of both their plan and their parents' may benefit from a premium tax credit.

Alternatively, your child might be able to save by opting for their own plan. It all depends on how the numbers work in your situation. "If your child is in college, they may have access to a super affordable health plan through their school, and you may have expensive, not-so-great coverage through your employer," Ashford says. "On the other hand, if your coverage is fantastic, it may be cheaper to keep them on your policy."

07 of 07

Read Your Summary Plan Description—Every Last Word.

"I know they can be tough to get through, but they are the best source of information about what your plan covers," Buckey says. "Read the materials your employer/insurer sends you—especially at open enrollment, when those special programs will likely be highlighted—but also year round. Browse the plan's website or your employer's intranet page covering benefits."

Talk to your company's advocacy service if you have one, and don't be afraid to suggest a new program to HR. "If it's important to you, it's probably important to your coworkers as well," she says.

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