1st Quarter 2007 Benefits Corner

by Ken Smith, CRA's Benefits Chairperson

Your Benefits Committee In Action

Nine common sense approaches to reducing health care costs

Here we are - just a few days into the New Year.  It's also the start of another health care year with the reset of all of those health care plan deductibles, copays, and out- of-pocket expenses.  As we start another year it is important to review our expenses from 2006 and plan - yes, plan - for the year ahead.

Unfortunately, we don't have a crystal ball in which we can foresee all of the medical issues we will face in the coming years.  Recent surveys indicate that Americans fret more about their health care costs than they do about paying the mortgage, becoming a victim of terrorism or, for those still working, the loss of a job.  And, that's not unreasonable.

Studies indicate that people in the 50 - 64 age range are especially hard hit.  At 65, of course, Medicare kicks in, greatly lightening the load for most. But costs can still be substantial, due primarily to the rising cost of prescription drugs.  Recent estimates by Fidelity Investments show that a 65-year-old couple retiring today should have a least $200,000 saved just to cover out-of-pocket medical expenses and premium costs during their retirement years.

In this column I would like to address some thoughts I have shared with some of our CRA Chapters plus some facts AARP recently published in an article entitled, "Your Take-Charge Guide to Affordable Health Care".  While Chevron continues to provide us with excellent health care plans the cost of those plans continues to increase.  These ideas are common sense approaches to help reduce your out-of-pocket expenses.

1. Go to the Fair - How many of you have attended your community's health fair?  Such fairs are held in most large communities and offer free or inexpensive routine screenings.  While the nurses or technicians there won't diagnose you, they often will discuss your symptoms and tell you whether you need to be concerned.  All test results are provided to you, which you can then take to your doctor for review if they show any abnormalities.

2. Consider alternative treatments - Depending on insurance coverage, acupuncture, massage therapy, and other alternative treatments can be less expensive than - and as effective as - traditional medical care for some chronic ailments.  One word of caution.  Make sure your physician knows of any alternative treatments you are taking.  I am about to embark on a series of acupuncture treatments for chronic back nerve pain.  I elected to try this approach only after discussing the alternatives in depth with my spine surgeon.  Of the remaining options available to me we both decided this was the least expensive approach and could have just as positive results as more surgery.

3. Visit your doctor's nurse practitioner or physician's assistant (PA) - If your doctor or specialist has a nurse practitioner or Physician Assistant, consider making your appointment through them.  These practitioners can frequently offer the same care as a doctor, at a lower rate and are often easier to schedule an appointment with.  Research comparing nurse practitioners with physicians shows that nurses and PA's tend to spend more time with patients, charge less, and do just as good a job of diagnosing problems.

4. Pick up the telephone - Got that same old sinus infection again?  Your physician might help you for free by phone and simply call in a prescription.

5. Consider generics or cheaper brands - For most drugs there is absolutely no difference in the therapeutic value of generics and name-brands.  Have a heart-to-heart talk with your doctor, explaining that you need to economize on the cost of drugs.  Be grateful for free name-brand samples if you have a short-term need for a drug or if you and your doctor are not sure how effective that drug might be.  I was just prescribed a new, expensive nerve pain drug that my doctor feels one week of medication will show if there are positive results.  He provided me with a week's supply at no charge.

6. Be inventive - Sometimes doctors can't prescribe a generic because there is none. Even then, consider asking your pharmacist about alternatives you can bring up with you doctor.  If you have computer access, go on line to http://www.MEDCO.com and click on the new service entitled, "Savings Advisor".  Simply type in the name of a drug and the advisor will provide you with all available alternatives and their cost to you.  Discuss these cheaper alternatives with your doctor to determine if he/she feels it is appropriate to try one.

7. Ask if it's safe to split - Most tablets and pills (but never capsules) can be split, often saving you a substantial amount.  Pills labeled "time release" or "long-acting" are exceptions; they usually are not safe to split.  For example, my doctor prescribed a 40mg tablet of one of my drugs but only wants me to take 20mg.  By splitting the tablet I save $42.63 for each 3 month renewal.

Or double up -- Buying smaller doses of your medication can sometimes save you money.  Again, check the MEDCO Savings Advisor for any potential savings. Always check with your doctor and follow his advice and never take less than the prescribed dose of your medication.

8. Freebies - If you have a limited income, you may be eligible for free or low-cost drugs through your state or the manufacturer.  The Partnership for Prescription Assistance can help you learn if you qualify.  Call 1-888-477-2669, or go online at http://www.pparx.org/.

9. Check your bill twice - A typical hospital bill comes to you looking like a veritable rat's nest of codes, numbers, debits and credits.  How can you tell if the accounting is accurate?  You often can't.  Yet the number of mistakes on hospital bills is high.  Susan Dressler, president of the Alliance of Claims Assistance Professionals, whose members help patients decipher their medical bills, states that in her experience, "50% of bills have an error or an overcharge somewhere".

Finally, if you have computer access, regularly check your account information on both MEDCO.com and if applicable MYUHC.com.  Both websites have extensive information about your health care history as well as tools to help manage your health care and your Chevron plan.

I wish all of our retirees, spouses and surviving spouses a very healthy and prosperous 2007.