Tips for Surviving the Rising Cost of Healthcare

By Barby Ingle, Columnist

In my 20+ years as a chronic care patient, I have had over $1 million in medical bills. By the time I pass away, it may be nearing the $2 million mark for me.

Although insurance covered most of my healthcare costs, I’ve paid tens of thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses and deductibles. Chronic illness can wipe you out financially. I had to sell my house to help pay the bills. Family and friends pitched in by hosting medical fundraisers for me.

This was before I realized that I was overpaying, that I could negotiate some prices, and that there were time savers and tools I could use to help keep costs down.  Here are a few tips that I use to keep my medical expenses low.

Shop around for healthcare services. Use websites like Amino, BuildMyBod or Healthcare Bluebook to find out what your out-of-pocket costs are likely to be for an x-ray, lab test or doctor’s appointment. They can also help you choose an insurance plan that will cover the treatments you are most likely to need.

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Many providers have cash prices for procedures or tests that are lower than what they charge insurers. I have even paid cash to a provider, submitted the insurance claim myself and received a full refund.

Had my provider submitted the paperwork, it would have cost me more out-of-pocket and my care would have been delayed waiting for a prior authorization.

When it comes to prescriptions, check for deals, coupons and if generic medication is available. Don't be afraid to ask. Many pharmacy chains sign contracts with pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) that bind them not to tell a patient that the cash price would be lower, unless the patient asks first. This is known as a PBM clawback and it leads many patients to abandon their scripts because they don’t think they can afford to pick up the medication. 

Pharmacies, manufacturers and coupon companies offer discount pricing that can save you significant amounts.  Walgreen's has a prescription savings club, which can provide savings from $50 to over $100 on a 90-day supply of a medication. I primarily use Walgreen's, but if another pharmacy has a lower price for something like an antibiotic, I will go to them.

I also have my doctor sign my scripts “fill as written,” which can lower the cost of brand name medications run through my insurance card. Always check on how similar the generic is to the brand name. By law they only have to be 70% of the original formulation. The fillers used in generic drugs can vary, so things like time-released medication can work differently than the brand name. It’s important to check on this when looking at how much savings you can create. You want the generic medication to work just as effectively for you.

Walk-in clinics are becoming popular for routine care appointments. By my house there is an urgent care clinic and a Walgreen's clinic that offer online check-in so that patients can avoid lengthy waits. They call or send a text to let you know you are next, so you can head down and spend less time in their waiting room with other sick people. In major cities there are health fairs that offer free or low-cost medical services to uninsured and under insured patients.

I also utilize concierge providers through a monthly subscription. Anything the primary care provider can do in his office is included in the monthly fee, which if you pay quarterly or yearly will be even lower. Sometimes I don’t even have to go see the doctor, I can teleconference with him and he can just call in a script that I will get quicker and cheaper. I save the more expensive ER visits and specialty care for real emergencies like allergic reactions, broken bones, and other life-threatening situations I have had.

My final tip is the use of health apps that allow patients to check the prices of prescriptions, get discounts, print medical records, and store emergency information on your phone for paramedics to access. I like GoodRx and Needy Meds for finding the least expensive medications nearby. And I use HealthTune’s app for mindfulness music, which is a free streaming platform that offers scientifically researched music to support your health.  

No matter what choices you make to save money, the more organized you are with your healthcare and medical records, the better your future care will be. I’d love for you to share in the comment section what tips you use to keep your healthcare costs down.

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Barby Ingle lives with reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), migralepsy and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the International Pain Foundation. She is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics.

More information about Barby can be found at her website. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Will End of Obamacare Hurt the Chronically Sick?

By Barby Ingle, Columnist

When a pebble is thrown into a pond, it creates a ripple effect that is noticeable, but no long-term damage occurs.

But if an asteroid were to land in the ocean, it could be catastrophic to all life on earth. We are simply not prepared for such a disaster.

The chronic pain community was hit by an asteroid of sorts last year with the release of the CDC’s opioid prescribing guidelines. The tsunamis are still hitting patients in its aftermath. To make any change to the healthcare system without having something to replace it is never a good idea.

Now we are anxiously waiting for details on what President-Elect Donald Trump and the Republican-led Congress will offer to replace Obamacare.

Although things won’t change overnight, the early signs are that “Trumpcare” could affect the already limited healthcare that the poor, elderly and chronically ill receive.

Some of you who are not chronically ill may feel like I am saying the sky is falling. But many of us are already unable to afford proper and timely treatment with the coverage we have now, because the system is set up to give priority to acute care, not chronic care.

Republican lawmakers can’t wait until Obamacare is repealed and replaced. But they need to take the time to develop a system that is effective for patients, providers, educational institutions, insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies and government agencies. Patients and providers are far too often left out of the discussion about treating the chronically ill and appropriate compensation for those providing their care.

In the first few days of 2017, GOP leaders such as House Speaker Paul Ryan and Health and Human Services Secretary-nominee Dr. Tom Price announced that they will target the Medicare system with major restructuring. They have not yet offered any details on their plans, but say they will lower healthcare costs for taxpayers. 

Medicare is an east target. With the number of elderly increasing as baby boomers move into retirement age, it’s inevitable that health care costs are going to increase. In 2015, Medicare spending grew 4.5% to $646 billion, and Medicaid grew twice as fast, by 9.7% to $545 billion.

"Value-Based" Medicine

Based on their recent announcement, congressional leaders are likely to try to convert Medicaid from an entitlement program for low-income, elderly and disabled Americans to one that is “value based” with fixed federal contributions to the states. They have not yet offered details on how those payments would be calculated or whether they would keep pace with inflation. 

Measuring a providers’ pay using a value based system is not going to work with chronic illness. There is not enough incentive in the current system that gives providers the compensation they need. We have already seen many providers across the country choose to stop treating people with chronic pain diseases. 

Every patient is also different. There is no one-size-fits-all cure for any disease. Two people can be given the same medication for cancer, and while it may work for one patient, the other one may have to try other treatments. This is the same for every single chronic disease. 

A person who breaks a bone can go to the emergency room, get the bone set, and wear a cast while it heals. They don’t have to think about how they are going to keep living with an incurable disease and the roadblocks they have to face in getting treatment.

Now we have people who don’t understand the complexity of treatment for chronic care patients deciding what additional roadblocks they can put up to keep costs down. 

Can we start by paying Congress with a value based system, like they want to do with our providers? Can we punish lawmakers with fines for needing extra hearings to get a bill passed or blocked? I don’t think so. Yet the current leadership wants states to provide better healthcare at a lower cost by giving them greater flexibility in setting eligibility and benefits. I see it as taking away even more of the limited coverage we currently have. 

Without federal guidelines, states will push poor people out of programs, eliminate important benefits, and cut already-low payment rates to providers to save money.

I remember a time in Arizona when poor men and women qualified for state assistance for health and food. Now, you must have children to qualify for many of our assistance programs. 

Every state is different in what its Medicaid program covers and the eligibility requirement. Giving additional incentives states to “cut costs” instead of putting the focus on patient care is a big mistake and will cost society more in the long run. 

It reminds me of something I have seen in the insurance industry. Insurers want to lower emergency room costs, so they put payment practices in place to discourage chronic care patients from seeking the care they need. 

I have personally been in the position of not wanting to go to the ER because I knew they wouldn’t do anything to help me. As soon as the attending doctor sees my complicated medical history, they don’t want to treat me for the acute issue that I am having due to the extra precautions they need to take due to my chronic disease. They spend more time trying to find another hospital to transfer me to than they spend working on me! 

This past September, I had two hospital doctors fight in front of me because one didn’t want to be my attending provider. I am a complicated case, and he knew he was not going to be compensated properly for taking care of me. The outcome was leaving me in the emergency room for over 12 hours before getting me a room. This gave him enough time to pressure me to check myself out and head to another hospital, which was suggested more than once. 

The emergency room provider knew I needed to be in the hospital, so she loudly spoke up to keep me there and worked hard to help me as best she could. The delays in getting me treatment only wound up increasing the insurance bill.

New congressional proposals would phase out enhanced federal payments to the states to cover low-income adults. States need to save money as well, so what will they do to offset these costs? They will either raise taxes or cut what is covered to those in need. Long-term care coverage items seem to get cut first, as they are the most costly. 

President-elect Trump campaigned on not touching Medicare and promised to make sure everyone has access to healthcare. But we don’t know whether he will go along with the healthcare agendas of top congressional leaders. We do know that the Trump administration is receptive to the states' Medicaid waiver proposals. This would impose more patient-responsibility requirements. Chronic care patients already have trouble paying insurance premiums, sustaining employment, and dealing with illnesses that last a lifetime. Putting time limits on benefits for a chronically ill person is ridiculous.

Congressional leaders are now saying they are working to turn Medicare into a program that would pay private plans and the traditional fee-for-service program a fixed amount per beneficiary by 2024. If traditional Medicare competes with private plans on equal terms, there will be a loss in coverage of long-term care needs for the chronically ill. 

We are not equal to a healthy working individual and our coverage needs are critically different. It is also important to remember those who are disabled and qualify for Medicare have earned it by paying into the system when they could work. Demanding someone to be engaged in meaningful work to receive Medicare benefits when they are disabled is ridiculous.  

Let’s not wait to move until the asteroid hits. Let us unite and voice our needs so we are not overlooked as these new policies are developed. Let’s demand that our congressional leaders give chronically ill patients a seat at the table, and take the time to create a health system that is right for all Americans. Don’t let them forsake the chronically ill to save money. 

Barby Ingle suffers from Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the Power of Pain Foundation. She is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics.

More information about Barby can be found at her website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Choose the Green Door

By Barby Ingle, Columnist 

When there is a hallway full of doors and you don’t know which one contains the cure, where do you start? Which door do you choose?

I go with the green one. The one that makes the most sense to me personally. The door is a place to start finding answers and access to care. If what we need is not behind that door, remember there are other doors down each corridor of life.  

Patients all over America have been struggling to get good healthcare for chronic conditions since I can remember. These patients, along with their loved ones, healthcare providers, and millions of taxpayers, are suffering the pitfalls of a healthcare system that too often doesn’t work.  

In most chronic care situations, we are not taught self-advocacy skills. As a result, we often don’t know our rights or responsibilities as patients. 

For this terrible situation to stop, it is going to take a combined effort on the part of many people. But it starts with us becoming better informed, proactive, and organized as patients.  

Better organization, prevention programs, access to care, and learning the tools to take care of ourselves between appointments will go a long way towards ending this crisis in our society.

I talk a lot about being prepared and organized as a patient to receive the best healthcare possible (see “What to do Before Seeing a Doctor”). Starting a journal and keeping a checklist of things to talk about with your doctor will help guide you through the minefield of the healthcare system. It takes work in the beginning, but gets easier as you go. You’ll save yourself more pain and challenges in the future.

Finding the Right Fit

When it comes to living the best life you can, every person has choices. There are even more choices for those who have chronic pain or illness. It is important to find the right fit for you. Patients can either let the disease run them or sort through the system and take control of their disease.

Your first goal should be getting a correct diagnosis. If you need to go to multiple doctors, take the time to do it now to prevent your health from deteriorating further.

Each doctor has their specialty and treatment options that they are comfortable with. This does not always mean that they are the right doctor for you or that another treatment will not work. If you are not comfortable with the treatment offered by your current provider, find a doctor who you trust to try different options. 

It can be very aggravating to deal with a kidney stone or torn ligament, but at least there is an end in sight. You can get back to a “normal life” once the stone passes or the bone break heals. Other conditions such as high blood pressure, heart failure, diabetes, Lyme disease, multiple sclerosis, RSD, arthritis, osteoporosis, neuropathy and other chronic conditions can be more of a challenge for patients and usually last a lifetime.

Coping with a chronic condition takes hope and self-awareness. Take charge of your disease instead of letting it rule you. Some doctors, friends, and even family will say, “Just live with it” or “Get used to it.” But you are the one who lives with a chronic condition. You can learn to live with it and how to manage life around the symptoms and problems without losing yourself. 

Staying Positive

Being positive and hopeful in what you can make of your future is a big factor in determining whether you have a successful outcome. We need positive attitudes to make lifestyle changes. Some will be easier, such as changing your diet or beginning a physical therapy routine. Others will be more difficult, like having to sever ties with a family member or friend who is hindering your recovery. We also need the support from our healthcare providers.

Most of all, we need to recognize that we are responsible for ourselves and that a successful treatment may require changes that only we can provide to ourselves.

We all deserve to have our pain taken seriously. To have the pain managed well instead of under-treated, untreated, or over-treated is important. Pain must be managed effectively and in a timely manner, with the underlying condition being addressed while the pain is being managed.

Do not assume that your doctor knows how to treat your pain. Every patient is different and doctors only know what they have been exposed to in their practices, schooling and continuing education classes. We must keep going until we find the door that is right for us. 

Don’t forget your lifelines. There are prescription programs to help cover co-pays, ways to appeal insurance decisions, and ways to negotiate with your providers to get the care needed. The goal is to receive effective relief and be able to organize and manage all aspects of life.

Finding good healthcare and support systems will lower the number of hospital visits, time spent in the hospital, unnecessary trips to the emergency room, repeated tests, and inadequate treatments. All of which contribute to the high costs of healthcare. On average, living with chronic pain costs $32,000 per patient per year.

Staying organized, keeping good records, and communicating with your pain care team will help you get access to proper and timely care.

Barby Ingle suffers from Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the International Pain Foundation. She is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics.

More information about Barby can be found at her website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Can Trump Make Healthcare Great Again?

By Barby Ingle, Columnist

As a chronic pain patient, I know that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has not been so affordable for some people. Here in Arizona, monthly insurance premiums are going up 75 percent and the national average is seeing a double digit increase.

Running a foundation for the past decade, I have heard many stories of patients unable to afford proper and timely healthcare. Since the enactment of Obamacare in 2010, I've heard even more stories of regret, loss of care and rising costs. Premiums have gone up so much that many would rather pay the penalty for not having insurance, instead of getting it.

I am not sure if President-elect Donald Trump can "repeal and replace" the ACA in a timely manner. It will take an act of Congress to completely repeal ACA and eliminate the individual mandate.

We need to broaden healthcare access for all Americans, especially those of us living with chronic illnesses. Let’s look at the 7 steps proposed by Trump during the presidential campaign.

1. Completely repeal Obamacare and eliminate the individual mandate. No person should be required to buy insurance unless he or she wants to.

I agree with not mandating the purchase of insurance, but I also see why it was put into the plan. It was thought if we force everyone to pay into the system, it will be easier to bear the costs of caring for the elderly and disabled. 

Current enrollment for Obamacare shows that less than 12.7 million of the 40 million without insurance are now covered. That's progress, but even with subsidies, many people in pain (not on disability) are unable to afford coverage. Also, many with insurance were cut from their long-time providers as their plans were no longer accepted by the provider.

2. Modify existing law that prohibits the sale of health insurance across state lines. As long as the plan purchased complies with state requirements, any vendor ought to be able to offer insurance in any state. By allowing full competition in the market, insurance costs will go down and consumer satisfaction will go up.

This is one provision I would like to see. I travel currently for my pain management care. I would like to see the sale of health insurance across state lines, as I believe it will offer me better in-plan coverage. Paying out of network is very costly for patients like myself.

As we allow the free market to play a bigger role, we must also make sure that no one slips through the cracks simply because they cannot afford insurance. We must review basic options for Medicaid and work with states to ensure that those who want healthcare coverage can have it. I don’t believe that basic Medicaid covers enough treatments for chronic pain patients.

I would also want multiple patient representatives and caregivers to play a role on boards and advisory committees that make these decisions. There is no plan in place for the involvement of the patient voice that I am aware of.

3. Allow individuals to fully deduct health insurance premium payments on their tax returns.

I would like the ability to fully deduct my health insurance premiums. Businesses are allowed to take these deductions, so why wouldn’t Congress allow individuals the same exemptions?

4.  Allow more individuals to use Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). Contributions to HSAs should be tax-free and should be allowed to accumulate from year to year. These accounts could become part of the estate of the individual and could be passed on to heirs. HSA funds could then be used by any member of a family without penalty. 

As someone who has participated in an HSA in past years, I found that they were not a benefit for me as a chronic pain patient. I spent everything in my HSA account as fast as it went in from my husband’s paychecks.

But for others who don't have to worry about paying for long-term chronic care needs, I have seen the HSA system work and help spread out costs throughout the year. HSA accounts would be particularly attractive to healthy young people with high-deductible insurance plans.  

5. Require price transparency from all healthcare providers, especially doctors and healthcare organizations like clinics and hospitals. Individuals should be able to shop to find the best prices for procedures, exams or any other medical-related procedure.

I believe in 100% price transparency from all providers, insurance companies, pharmacies and hospitals. We should be able to easily see the costs of our care.

6. Give Medicaid block grants directly to the states. Nearly every state already offers benefits beyond what is required in the current Medicaid structure. The state governments know their people best and can manage the administration of Medicaid far better without federal oversight. States will have the incentives to seek out and eliminate fraud, waste and abuse.

I like this as well. Giving each state the ability to fund and provide their own Medicaid benefits will be beneficial. We have to cut down on fraud and get proper and timely access of care to those who need it most.

7. Remove barriers that prevent foreign drug makers from offering safe, reliable and cheaper products. Congress will need the courage to step away from the special interests and do what is right for America. Allowing consumers access to imported and cheaper drugs will save money.

We need more abuse resistant medications, along with drugs that are more affordable. I agree that allowing consumers access to imported drugs will give us more options and help cut prices.

These seven steps are just the start of what we need to make the system work better. The process will take years to figure out. Let’s keep our voices loud as patients and advocates, so that we keep the good parts of our healthcare system and increase access for those who need it by lowering costs and opening access to alternative treatments. We also need to address the abuse of opioid medication, while maintaining access for those that truly need it. 

Barby Ingle suffers from Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the International Pain Foundation. She is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics.

More information about Barby can be found at her website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.