Story last updated at 8/26/2009 - 2:14 pm
In this challenging economy, many people have curbed discretionary expenses like vacations, entertainment and shopping excursions. Unfortunately, many folks - even those with medical insurance - are also cutting back on healthcare services they can no longer afford, including preventive care, check-ups and medications for chronic conditions.
This short-term budgetary fix could have disastrous long-term effects, as easily treated or preventable conditions morph into much more serious - and expensive - illnesses.
While our government wrestles with solving the national healthcare crisis, here are a few suggestions for stretching your healthcare dollars and ensuring your family receives proper care:
Use your plan wisely. Most health insurers supply educational materials on preventive care such as quitting smoking, weight loss and chronic disease management (like diabetes and high cholesterol). Many even provide financial incentives for completing treatment programs, getting immunizations and using generic drugs, since these practices save money in the long run.
Check your carrier's website for details, or visit the HHS's "Prevention" Web site at www.hhs.gov/safety for information and web links on such topics as fitness, nutrition, risky behavior modification and much more.
Free screenings. Many pharmacies, clinics and health organizations such the National Kidney Foundation (www.kidney.org) and the American Academy of Dermatology (www.add.org) provide free screenings for illnesses such as kidney disease, skin cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Search "free screenings" at www.hhs.gov for nearby screenings.
Bargain with providers. Before going without needed care, speak to your doctor, dentist or hospital about your financial difficulties and see if they'll work with you to reduce fees or allow installment payments. They may also be able to suggest alternate treatments or connect you with programs that will help pay for your care.
For example, most pharmaceutical companies offer patient assistance programs (PAPs) that provide uninsured and low-income people access to drugs they couldn't otherwise afford. Ask your doctor, pharmacist or clinic how to proceed, or visit Partnership for Prescription Assistance (www.pparx.org), which has enrollment information on over 475 public and private PAPs, including links to Medicaid programs.
Laid off? File for COBRA. Under the 2009 economic stimulus plan, the government will pay 65 percent of the cost of COBRA coverage for up to nine months for employees laid off between September 1, 2008, and December 31, 2009. Granted, coverage is still expensive, but far less so than if you were uninsured and incurred a serious accident or illness.
Use public resources. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) helps fund over 7,000 community health centers serving millions of uninsured and underinsured Americans. Patients pay based on what they can afford for services such as routine checkups, maternity care, immunizations, prescription drugs, and dental, mental health and substance abuse care.
To learn more about this program and find the closest HHS-supported center, visit http://bphc.hrsa.gov. In addition, many university teaching hospitals and dental schools operate clinics on a sliding payment scale.
Medicaid. Many uninsured people not yet eligible for Medicare can obtain medical coverage through state-administered Medicaid programs. To learn more about Medicaid, visit www.cms.hhs.gov/MedicaidGenInfo.
Don't let financial worries cause you to ignore your family's health needs. Resources are available; you just need to seek them out.
Jason Alderman directs Visa's financial education programs. To sign up for a free monthly personal finance e-Newsletter, go to www.practicalmoneyskills.com/newsletter.