1. Know thy insurance policy. "One big money saver is just to read your policy," says Michelle Katz, MSN, author of 101 Health Insurance Tips. Policy terms can change, and it pays to double-check with your insurer before you get treatment (assuming it's not a crisis). But even in an emergency, just knowing which hospitals in your area are covered could save thousands. Many policies also cover extras such as therapy, alternative care, gym visits or phone consults with a nurse practitioner.
2 Get coverage from the state. You may have heard that the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) was renewed, but in some states it also was expanded to cover kids in families with incomes well above the poverty line. To find out if you qualify for this free federal program, go to cms.hhs.gov/home/chip.asp.
3 Haggle. Just as with car or home buying, negotiating can save serious money. But what is the best way to bargain?
Compare prices. If you know you're getting a test or procedure-or if you've already been billed -- ask your doctor's office for the CPT (Current Procedural Terminology) code. That's a universal number that denotes a specific billable service, e.g., an MRI or a lab test. Then, to see what prices different providers are paying, plug the code into the American Medical Association's CPT search engine at ama-assn.org.
Be honest about what you can afford, even if that means revealing more about your family's finances.
Offer to pay in cash, right away, which could get you a discount on services of 20 to 50 percent, according to Larry Gelb, CEO of CareCounsel LLC, a health-care advocacy firm in San Rafael, CA.
Find the right person. "The first person you call is probably just answering the phone. Ask to speak to a manager instead." It's fine to be persistent, Katz says. "Try saying, 'I really want to pay you, but I can't afford X.'"
4 Save on drugs. Generic drugs are often less expensive than brand names, but in some cases there may be a cheaper over-the-counter version, says Katz. Rxaminer.com shows you the cost of brand names and the alternatives. More ways to save:
Ask your doctor whether you can get higher-dose pills and split them yourself, getting twice the medication for the same price. (A 50-milligram pill may be scored so you can split it into two 25-milligram pills, but not all are, so check first!)
Mail-order pharmacies may save you up to 40 percent on drug costs, especially if you're buying several months' supply at once.
5 Take those free tests! If your local pharmacy, school, hospital or health fair offers free tests (blood pressure, eye exams, cholesterol, glucose), take advantage of the free public service, says Katz.
6 Request itemized bills-and read 'em. Erroneous charges on medical bills are more common than you'd think, says Katz. Double-check everything.