Shopping around for health care, bidding on your tests can save you money

CLEVELAND - Health premiums have increased 97 percent percent for employees who get their insurance from their employer, as many companies switch to high-deductible insurance plans.

The Kaiser Family Foundation says that's putting a big burden on workers and employers. There are simple steps you can take to save money without compromising on quality whether you have insurance, you're uninsured or under-insured.

We shop for deals to restaurants, clothing stores and spas. So, why not shop for health care savings?

"It's different," Tom Maher said. Maher is willing to try new ways to slash his health care bills. He saved 50 percent on a routine lab test he needed by bidding on the test on a site called Bid on Health.

"It's kind of like Priceline for the hotel business," Maher said.

Like Priceline, you name the price for the health test you want. In Cleveland and Akron, there are more than 84 lab tests you can bid on.

After your price is accepted, you find out the name of the lab.

"It's a national company," Maher said.

Maher was paying $30 out of pocket for the test. He now pays just $15. While the claim isn't submitted to his insurance, he doesn't mind because his deductible is so high.

His results are sent directly to his doctor.

"If the quality of care, in this case the quality of lab work, is equal I don't see why you wouldn't want to find a less expensive alternative," Maher said.

In Ohio, Bid on Health only offers lab work. It hopes to add radiology, dental, and urgent care soon. But is this doctor approved?

School of medicine doctor responds to bidding on health care

"I think anything that helps people be healthy and have healthy wallets is a good thing," said Scott Frank, M.D.

Frank is the Director for the Master of Public Heath program at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. He said cost is a discussion with more than half his patients.

"I think it starts from the fact that our health care system is basically broken. The cost of care is too high," Frank said.

Shop around to save on medical costs, but be careful

To cut costs, shop around for medical care.

Ohio hospitals list the prices for the top tests and procedures on their websites. Call different facilities for pricing. Independent labs and imaging centers charge cheaper fees.

For example, a local hospital charges more than $4,495 for an MRI of the abdomen. An imaging center we checked charges $1,995. That's a difference of 55 percent.

You might save even more if you offer to pay cash. When you pay cash, the company won't submit your claim through the insurance company.

Frank encourages his patients to look for cheaper options, but he says you need to be careful.

"I think the mistake would be if people consider themselves their own doctor and not working with a health professional to make decisions that are evidence based," Frank said.

Some money-saving sites don't require a doctor's prescription. We saw a Groupon for $340 worth of lab tests for $49. We sent our intern to see what the company tells patients.

"You're getting a good deal," the nurse told our intern.

For $49, our intern got thyroid, liver, kidney, glucose and cholesterol tests.

Our intern asked, "What are those other tests? The thyroid one looks familiar. What are the kidney and liver tests?"

"It's creatine. Which is kidney function. Electrolytes. Glucose," the nurse said.

That was the only explanation given and the lab didn't want to talk about this offer on camera. The results were mailed to our intern.

Dr. Frank said you need to proceed with caution when trying to read results on your own. Just because your results are 2 points above or below the average doesn't mean you have a health problem.

"The amount of anxiety we see even when we have someone there to interpret them is very high," Frank explained.

Daily deal sites like Groupon and LivingSocial are also a good way to save on dental services. One dentist told me many people began cutting back on dental visits when the economy dipped so he began offering cheap exams on daily deal sites.

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