Everyone's feeling the financial pinch. Here's how to cut your medical costs drastically, without compromising your health.
In the last few years, the price of medical treatment has gone through the roof. The average wage earner is finding that a larger and larger portion of his/her monthly income is spent on medical scheme contributions, or on things not covered by medical schemes.
In the case of people who have no cover, costs could be crippling. While some state hospitals offer excellent service and facilities, the same cannot be said for all of them. And paying for a private hospital out of your own pocket could set you back the price of a good secondhand car. That's if you're lucky.
So what can you do to cut down on medical costs?
Stick with the company medical scheme. This is always cheaper than buying a medical scheme plan on the open market, where you may have to foot the bill for the entire contribution. The portion paid by some companies really does lower your costs. Remember also that in-house medical schemes are usually not run to make a profit. Once you retire, the in-house scheme will still be the cheapest way to go.
All in the family. If you have two children and a spouse, get them all on the same medical scheme. If you have the whole family on the same scheme, it is usually much cheaper than when you or your spouse join separately.
Shop around. If you have to paddle your own canoe as far as a medical scheme is concerned, shop around. You need to find one that suits your needs. Some medical schemes have high premiums, but also have high limits for individual categories. If you don't get ill often, it might be worth your while to go for a medical scheme whose premiums are lower, but gives good hospital cover, even if the day-to-day limits are not great. Go to an independent medical scheme broker, as they will help you choose the best option for you out of many different possibilities.
Get a hospital plan. If you have no medical scheme, because you think it is too expensive, try a two-week stay in a private hospital after an accident. A hospital plan is cheaper than full medical aid, but go for the one that pays from the first day, otherwise there is little point. Hospital plan vs. medical scheme.
Find a reasonable chemist. On certain medications – both prescription and over-the-counter (OTC), prices can vary enormously from chemist to chemist. The one closest to your house may not be the cheapest. You could be paying a fortune for convenience. Chemists in upmarket shopping centres or in office blocks tend to be more expensive than the corner chemist in a residential area. Large, discount pharmacies could save you a fortune. They might not be open at night, but they often charge much lower levies on prescriptions. How to find the right pharmacy.
Repeat prescriptions can be faxed through. You don't need to pay for a doctor's visit every time you need a prescription for minor chronic ailments. Phone and get the doctor to fax it to the pharmacy. If it is something serious, though, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, you will need to be checked. Remember that many pharmacies also have a free home delivery service.
Check out the state hospitals. If you have no medical scheme, consider going to a state hospital, but check it out first. Some of them are very good, although hardly luxurious. But then, when you need to have your appendix out, who cares about plush carpets and elevator music? Ask your GP about which hospital he/she recommends.
Check out your supermarket. Many over-the-counter medications are available at supermarkets. Items such as headache tablets, vitamin pills and antacids are generally much cheaper at the supermarket than they are at the pharmacy, as the supermarket buys these things in bulk.
Use your benefits.If your scheme will pay for vitamins, use the benefit. If there is a lifestyle programme attached to the scheme, join it. You might save a fortune on gym fees, to name one thing.
Company doctor/sister. Check if there is a medical person on duty if you work in a large company. Certain medical checks (blood pressure, blood sugar etc.) can probably be done for free on the premises. Make use of it, as it will make your medical savings account go so much further than if you went to the GP every time you needed something like this.
Be pharmacy-wise. Ask for a cash discount, and don't buy things in bulk, especially if they expire quickly. Choose a pharmacy that is linked online to your medical scheme - it is just so much more convenient.
Look at generics. Generic medications are often exactly the same as the real (read expensive) thing. You can get the same medication, often at half the price, if you buy generics. This will increase the time you may take to reach your claim limits in certain categories of your medical scheme, leaving you covered for so much longer. What to ask your GP or pharmacist.
Take your own supplies to the hospital. Find out in advance what you will need – tablets, cotton wool, bandages, antiseptic – and take them with you. Hospitals are notorious for charging you for a whole packet of earbuds if you used only three of them.
Audit your hospital bill. Get your medical scheme to audit your hospital bill. If there are inconsistencies, they will have more clout than you will on your own. Also remember that your medical scheme can sometimes negotiate special rates with hospitals. Ask about this before you have that operation.
Go for the GP who is contracted in. This could save you an enormous amount of money. The last thing you feel like doing is paying 70 percent of the bill for seeing your gynaecologist or GP, because the rates they charge are so much higher than the rates paid out by your medical scheme. Get someone who is contracted in to medical aid if you can, so the bill will never even be sent to you. Remember also that you can negotiate rates with doctors and dentists. How to choose the right GP. Ask your scheme for a list of such doctors.
Get access to medical information. A reliable website, such as Health24, or a good medical reference book will answer many of your questions. Reputable sources of medical information will also tell you when you should go to the doctor, as mere information can never take the place of face-to-face medical treatment when it's necessary.
Ask your pharmacist. Pharmacists can often give good medical advice about things such as skin rashes, flu or minor infections. Ask your pharmacist about over-the-counter medication or self-treatment for minor ailments. Pharmacists are also often open after hours. Most big cities have all-night pharmacies where there is a pharmacist on duty. Clinic sisters at some pharmacies can often also give you injections or test blood pressure or sugar levels – you might only have to pay for the medication, not a full consultation.
Look after yourself. Prevention is always better than cure. Taking a good multivitamin, eating fresh fruit and vegetables, getting some exercise, not having unprotected sex, sleeping enough, not smoking, not drinking excessively and learning to relax, are all things you can do to prevent yourself from being infected by opportunistic viruses. The healthier you are, the lower your medical costs will be.
(Susan Erasmus, Health24, updated January 2009)