Get a handle on health-care costs

Save a bundle on insurance and medications with these savvy tips

Get insurance if you don't have it

Research different policies so you can choose the plan that best fits your situation.

Find a plan online. Two good places to start are healthinsurance.com and ehealthinsurance.com. After typing in your zip code, age and whether you smoke, you'll see a list of policies available in your area. When we checked ehealthinsurance.com, it listed 107 plans with monthly premiums from $171 to $1,070 for a couple with one child living in Virginia; healthinsurance.com showed 58 plans. Avoid sites that don't provide instant quotes--they ask for personal information and sell it to insurance salespeople.

Tap government programs. Income thresholds for Medicaid, a federal program, are quite low. To see if you qualify, go to the Web site of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services at cms.hhs.gov. You can find state programs by visiting familiesusa.org; click on "Resources for consumers," then on "State guides to finding health insurance."

Look into short-term insurance. If you've lost your job, don't go without coverage. In addition to your COBRA rights, you should consider short-term policies, which last up to six months (some go for a year). They cover only catastrophic illness, so you won't be reimbursed for doctor's visits or preventive care. Depending on where you live, short-term coverage costs as little as $50 a month.

Consult a broker. A good insurance broker will know which plans have the best rates and most doctors in your area, says Teri Gutierrez, president of Integrated Benefits Solutions in Raleigh, N.C. There's no charge for a broker's services: Insurance companies pay the commissions. To find a broker, visit the Web site of the National Association of Health Underwriters (nahu.org).

Bonus tip: Make sure your broker represents many insurance providers, not just one. This will give you the widest choice of policies.

Find free and low-cost services. Sliding-fee clinics, which let you pay what you can afford, will often offer a full range of medical and dental services. To find one in your area, go to ask.hrsa.gov/pc. You may also be eligible for a program that offers free or low-cost mammograms and Pap smears; for more information, click on the Web site of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc.gov/cancer/nbccedp). Finally, if you have a dental school nearby, ask if they run a clinic. In Philadelphia, for example, Temple University's dental school offers checkups for $20, with third- and fourth-year students doing the work under supervision. There's one drawback: You may be in the chair for up to half a day.

 

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