Readers here at the blog will know that I've recommended that adult athletes have a doctor....and that they visit the doctor annually. This sort of medical care falls under the category of preventive care or wellness care. You'll also know that I've recommended cardiac screening evaluations that might include an ECG or echocardiogram.
When I talk to athletes about this issue, it seems that one of the most common barriers is the cost. No doubt, medical care is expensive. Moreover, many young adult athletes have medical insurance plans with high deductibles....or no medical insurance coverage at all.
My friend and professional triathlete, Jusitn Daerr, recently wrote an article entitled, "I'm Young, I'm Fit, What Could Happen?" at EnduranceCorner about his experience with a new-patient office visit and cardiac screening evaluation. I'd encourage you to read his piece. His situation and thoughts are typical for young adult athletes.
Today, I thought I'd offer 6 tips for athletes to help reduce the expense of preventive medical care:
1. Know the price (as best you can)
It may actually be difficult to know (ahead of time) the cost of medical services you might need, but it's worth your effort to try to find out. Your doctor's office can readily tell you the typical charges for a new patient or established patient visit. Keep in mind that a follow-up visit often costs much less because the doctor doesn't need to spend as much time getting to know you after the initial visit. You might feel reluctant talking to the doctor about the costs of any visit, but he/she will probably be very happy to answer questions that you might have.
Your doctor or his/her office staff should also be able to find for you the costs for any laboratory or other diagnostic testing that is recommended. It's important to realize that your doctor may establish the fee schedule if the test is done in his/her office, but won't have any part in setting the charges if the test(s) are performed at a hospital or other facility. Nevertheless, the doctor's staff can help you track down the costs of most any test that is recommended.
Your doctor and his/her office staff can also provide some "local knowledge" about options for where to go for a particular test. Since each facility will have a different fee schedule, it can pay off to do some research about the charges at different facilities that offer the test(s) that you need. Don't be afraid to ask.
2. Time your medical care to your advantage
By its very nature, preventive care is not urgent or emergent. Office visits and laboratory or other diagnostic testing can be scheduled at your convenience. You should take advantage of that opportunity.
Many athletes will have a medical insurance plan with an annual deductibe....a dollar amount that you must pay fully out of pocket before the "real" insurance coverage kicks in. In recent years, it has become common for plans to have deductible amounts of $500 to $1000 or more. Since preventive care often costs far less than this amount, the cost of that preventive care is often totally out-of-pocket.
If you are somebody who has various medical expenses throughout the year (that add up over time), be sure to schedule your preventive care at a time during the year when you will get the best insurance coverage. This could mean delaying that care until later in the year, once your annual deductible is already met. By doing this, you might enjoy considerable cost savings for your preventive care needs.
3. Find health fairs that offer needed servicesLocal health fairs are a great oportunity to find some of the preventive services you need....either FREE or at a greatly reduced price. But you have to be willing to do some homework to find these health fairs....and work with your doctor to plan for using the health fairs to get needed test(s).
Justin Daerr brought to my attention a great offering in the Colorado front range area. There is a multi-city, continuing health fair sponsored by 9News. Examples of services that can be obtained at a tremendous cost saings include: blood chemistry (blood tests), blood counts (blood test), blood pressure, bone health screening, breast exam, eye health screening, diabetes screening (fingerstick), hearing tests, lung function test, pap smear, sleep apnea screening, and many others. With a variety of offerings, you could choose WHEN and WHERE to get any needed screening tests....and the results could be forwarded to your doctor for review.
This is just one example. Your doctor's office can often help you to locate suitable offerings in your area. Keep in mind, too, that in February, during Heart Month, many health organizations sponsor health fairs that are very specific to the heart and cardiovascular systems. It's often possible to find fairs that offer free ECG's, heart exams, and exams/testing for peripheral arterial disease of the extremities and neck. It's not usunual to be able to get $100's to $1000+ of free services if you plan ahead.
4. Use your HSA if you have a high-deductible medical insurance plan
By law, individuals with high-deductible medical insurance plans may contribute pre-tax dollars (up to $3,050 for an individual in 2011) to a Health Savings Account (HSA) that can then be used to pay for necessary medical expenses. By planning ahead for your preventive care needs, you could make the necessary contribution to your HSA and pay for your preventive care with pre-tax dollars (getting you a "discount" of whatever your tax rate would ordinarily be).
Since preventive care can typically be an out-of-pocket expense, the use of your HSA for this purpose is a no-brainer.
5. Use your employer-based flexible spending account if it's available
Many large employers offer a flexible spending account as part of their benefits package. Like an HSA, the flexible spending account allows for contribution to the account of pre-tax dollars that are deducted from your paycheck each pay period. The money accumulates in your account until you spend it on qualified expenses. Virtually all preventive medical care and any diagnostic testing recommended by your doctor would be eligible.
Unlike the HSA, however, money in the flexible spending account "goes away" if it is not spent by the end of each calendar year (plus, perhaps a small grace period). As a result, it requires special attention and forethought on your part to make an appropriate contribution choice....and then to spend the money before the end of the year. Even with these burdens, though, the flexible spending account is a terrific way to pay for your preventive care needs with pre-tax dollars (getting you a "discount" of whatever your tax rate might be).
6. Take advantage of wellness benefits of your insurance plan
Lastly, be aware that many employer-based health insurance plans offer some sort of wellness benefit. With the newly passed health care reform package, these wellness benefits will be more and more common in insurance plans, going forward.
As an example, I'll share some of the details of the wellness benefit offered through my own personal employer-based Blue Cross insurance plan. If I enroll (by answering an online questionnaire at the start of the year), I can get up to $1000 in covered wellness services without paying a cent out-of-pocket. The plan prescribes the eligible, covered services by age group for the plan's participants.
I hope that these 6 suggestions are helpful. A little bit of knowledge can help an athlete get the most for their health care dollar!