It makes all the difference in costs. Most people just go straight to the emergency room when they're sick, and that's the worst thing you can do.
You need to make sure you get the care you need at the cheapest price. So don't start at the emergency room, where an average trip costs more than a $1,000 before your insurance kicks in. First, consider a clinic within your HMO. If you have one, that can be a no-cost option, or consider a convenience care clinic, where costs are also very low, usually about $35 before your insurance.
Then, think about going to your doctor's office if you have a more serious problem. The co-pay will still be much lower there. And if it's after hours, or you need immediate help, consider an urgent care center instead of the emergency room. It's a fraction of the cost, about $153 before your insurance benefit.
Consider a Billing Software Review Package
By some estimates, eight out of 10 hospital bills contain errors, increasing the average bill by 25 percent.
The first thing to do is call up the billing department of the hospital or facility and make them go through the bill line by line, and explain what every charge is. Then, if you still have questions, dispute the bill.
There are also software packages available that cost $25 to $50 and often include an analysis feature that helps determine if you should dispute certain items. Some even track expenses for tax deduction purposes.
Now, if your bills are complex and big, the best thing to do is get a claims assistance professional, who will review your bill for errors, file the paperwork and ensure you received all of your entitled benefits. You can ask your accountant for recommendations.
The only downside is that they can be expensive. Most charge $40 to $80 an hour, but some companies do have a flat monthly or annual fee. That said, if you have a big, complicated bill, a claims assistance professional can save you a lot of money, even after the fees.
Buy Generics When Available
Americans spend about $200 billion a year on prescriptions. That's more than $650 for every American. And we all know you can save big -- up to 60 percent -- by buying generic medications when they are available.
But often, there's no generic equivalent of the medication you need. That's because patents don't allow for a generic until 17 to 20 years after a drug goes on the market.
But you can still save by using what's called a therapeutic alternative, which is a similar drug that gives you same results. One example is for cholesterol medication. Instead of taking Lipitor, some patients might be able to substitute Lovastatin, which is much cheaper. Of course, you should always check with your doctor first. Bottom line, always ask your doctor for the lowest-cost option that will work for you. And also make sure you ask about samples. Often, doctors can give you a full course of medication using samples, or at least give you enough to help cut down on the cost of what you'll have to pay for at the pharmacy.
Shop Around for Best Prescription Deals
As they say in real estate, "location, location, location." Many large retailers offer popular prescriptions at incredibly low costs, so it pays to shop around.
For example, Wal-Mart and Sam's Clubs offer 30-day supplies of 360 different types of generic drugs at a price of $4 per prescription, and Target offers 315 different medications at $4. You can also save big money by ordering your prescription medications by mail. Many prescription plans have this option, and you need to take advantage of it.
When you order a 90-day supply of medication, most plans will waive a good portion of your deductible. You can save up to 35 percent on your monthly co-payments, or about $90 a year on the average prescription.
There's just one caveat: make sure the prescription is supplied from a U.S.-based pharmacy, so you know the medication meets all U.S. safety standards.
Slashing Your Medical Bills, New COBRA Subsidy Cuts Costs by 65 Percent
Medical issues are one of the leading causes of bankruptcy, and you need health care as protection against that. If you are laid off, the easiest way to do that is to get COBRA protection from your former employer.
President Obama's new stimulus package has made it much more affordable. There's now a COBRA subsidy that covers 65 percent of a worker's premium for up to nine months. Those are huge savings.
Most families will now pay only $350 a month, down from $1,000 and most individuals $130 a month down from $370. Keep in mind, though, that the COBRA subsidy is limited to workers who are laid off between Sept. 1, 2008, and Dec. 31, 2009.
Your Children May Be Eligible for Low Cost Health Care
Every state provides some form of health coverage for infants, children and teens whose parents fall below a certain income level.
For example, in my home state of Illinois, a family that earns between $42,000 and $63,000 annually, only pays a $40 monthly premium for each child and a $10 co-pay for physician visits under the program. To find out your state's requirements and program details go to www.insurekidsnow.gov.
Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments in Chicago, is "Good Morning America's" personal finance expert. Visit her Web site, www.arielinvestments.com. Amar Parikh contributed to this report.