Stay Healthy, Save Money: 5 Ways You Can Take Charge of Your Healthcare Costs

09/30/2011 12:09 am ET Updated Nov 29, 2011

Current events come and go: liberation in Libya, the earthquake in Japan, floods from Hurricane Irene, Beyoncé's pregnancy -- the news marches on. Yet the steep and seemingly endless rise of U.S. healthcare costs, particularly for post-50 Americans, remains a thorny and prevailing topic regardless your political persuasions.

President Obama spent a good deal of his political purchase on healthcare reform; history will decide the outcome. In the meantime, our broken healthcare system is universally maligned by a ceaseless array of politicians, academics, business leaders, and media pundits.

The vast landscape of noise on healthcare depersonalizes the subject, when in fact, good health and access to decent medical care for us and our loved ones is one of the most personal of quests, particularly as we age into financially challenging medical conditions.

For many boomers, good healthcare is not simply about costs, quick fixes, or getting more exercise. Many of us live in chronic pain with little hope of medical resolve; many of us suffer with terminal illness beyond the redemptive reach of conventional or even alternative care.

Yet for the vast majority of post-50 Americans, access to safe, affordable, high-quality healthcare choices are well within reach. During my travels over the past five years, I have met hundreds of patients in dozens of hospitals, and I've repeatedly observed that proactive patients tend to be rewarded with satisfactory, affordable solutions and successful outcomes, while those who settle for the status quo get what's meted out to them.

Below are the strategies I hear most frequently from informed, intrepid, curious, unintimidated patients -- those I've come to respect the most:

  1. Negotiate with your hospital or clinic. Times are tough all over, and hospitals, dental clinics, and your local GP are no exceptions. Increasingly, American healthcare providers are willing to negotiate price, particularly with cost-effective alternatives such as international medical travel becoming a competitive reality. Healthcare insurers often pay far less than the "retail" rate for a given procedure, making it an easy argument for the uninsured or underinsured patient to pay less as well. Request a quote from your hospital or clinic before you receive treatment, and do not hesitate to ask if this is their "best price." It never hurts to inquire, and you might be surprised at the response.

  • Negotiate with your insurer. Every time a healthcare insurer denies a claim or says "no" to promised coverage, that's money in their pockets. These days, the prevailing strategy on the part of insurers is deny, deny, deny. If you have the fortitude to insist, insist, insist, insurers respond to squeaky wheels. You may want to enlist the help of healthcare consumer advocacy groups who can (sometimes for a fee) negotiate on your behalf.
  • Consider your global healthcare options. Whether we realize it or not, we continually make global consumer choices -- we buy Japanese-made cars, Korean-made television sets, iPods, iPhones, and myriad other devices manufactured in China. Over the years, we've generally come to trust the quality of our global purchases, particularly when associated with brands we embrace.
  • Did you know that Cleveland Clinic is building a hospital in Abu Dhabi? That Johns Hopkins has a cancer center in Singapore? That Eric Clapton owns an addiction and recovery center in Antigua? In fact, the world's most respected healthcare accreditation agency (the Joint Commission, based in Chicago) has now awarded full clinical accreditation to more than 400 hospitals outside the U.S.

    This year, over a half-million American "medical tourists" will cross international borders for medical treatment -- from hips and hearts to dentistry and gastric bypass. Depending on the destination, facility, and procedure, cost savings range from 40 percent to 90 percent -- often in hospitals that look and feel like five-star hotels. Patients Beyond Borders is one of many channels that offer options for healthcare consumers willing and able to venture outside their backyards for care.

  • Pursue your in-country travel options. Did you know there's a 30-70 percent disparity between treatment quotes right here in the U.S.? Patients who look beyond their doctor's preferred referral or their closest hospital will find choices within their borders that may well offset the inconvenience of travel. For more information on comparative U.S. treatment costs, see the Healthcare Blue Book, Cost Helper, and Vimo.
  • Get and stay healthy. Okay, I have to say it: The best treatment is to not need treatment in the first place. Whether we're talking about diabetes, heart disease, or joint problems, the vast majority of medical conditions are spawned or worsened by unhealthy lifestyle habits, with nicotine, alcohol, and poor diet topping the list. Much has already been said on the topic, but with U.S. longevity rates dropping for the first time in two decades, and juvenile obesity still on the march, not enough can be said.
  • Cutting your healthcare costs requires letting go of the helplessness many of us feel when contemplating a trip to the doctor or facing a medical procedure. Although taking charge of your healthcare options may seem intimidating, you will be in good company. The path is surprisingly well-travelled by informed, proactive patients who agree that creative, perhaps against-the-grain thinking can lead to a healthy, financially sound outcome.

    A leading advocate of patient access to safe, affordable healthcare options, Josef Woodman is author of "Patients Beyond Borders," the bestselling consumer reference for international health travel.