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Five ways to cut down on your healthcare costs

—Gary Applebaum

The recession has hit our country hard. According to a recent survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation, it’s motivated more than half of us to cut back on needed healthcare expenditures.

The desire to rein in spending at a time like this is understandable. But skimping on medical care is a dangerous way to do it. Thankfully, there are some simple—and safe—strategies to save money on healthcare without sacrificing your health. Here are my top five.

Know your health plan’s fine print.

Health insurance policies are notoriously complicated. Many patients end up paying unexpected fees. Did you know that with some plans, going to an out-of-network physician could increase your co-payment by up to fifty percent?

A close inspection of your policy might reveal some simple ways to keep your money in your pocket. Also, be aware of what your plan covers before deciding on a procedure or therapy. If you’re unclear about any aspect of your health plan, it’s worth calling your insurer to make sure there won’t be any surprises when the bill arrives.

Talk to your doctor about switching to generic medicines.

If you’re currently taking a brand name drug, you should speak to your doctor about switching to a generic alternative. Generics are just as effective as their brand name counterparts, but cost considerably less. Some can be purchased for just a couple dollars each month.

And even if your prescription isn’t currently available in generic form, it might soon be. Over the next two years, dozens of blockbuster drugs like Lipitor, Plavix, Zyprexa, and Singulair are losing their patent protection.

Stock up on medication.

Many insurance plans receive discounts from drug makers for purchasing ninety-day treatment courses. These savings are often passed on to consumers. So if you’re currently taking a drug each day to manage a chronic condition, talk to your doctor about switching from your thirty-day prescription to a ninety-day prescription.

Similarly, many big box stores like Wal-Mart sell ninety-day supplies of generic medications at a discounted rate.

Take preventive health measures.

Recommit yourself to that New Year’s resolution to lose a few pounds or quit smoking. And head to the doctor to get that physical you’ve been putting off. It may sound like simple advice, but keeping yourself healthy is the most effective way to avoid the need for costly medical procedures.

Take advantage of government assistance.

Of the nearly forty-seven million uninsured Americans, twelve million are eligible for government health insurance in the form of Medicare, Medicaid, or SCHIP. If you’re currently uninsured, do some research and find out if you qualify for any local, state, or federal aid. Public assistance could drastically cut down on your premiums and co-pays.

Be Smart!

Unfortunately, not all strategies for saving on healthcare are as safe and effective as these. Buying discount drugs online from overseas pharmacies could increase your risk of receiving tainted or counterfeit medications. Other quick-fix cost-saving strategies, like forgoing health insurance while between jobs, and ignoring early signs of serious illness, could lead to much higher medical bills down the road.

For those who have been hit hard by the current economic downturn, it’s important to remember that staying healthy on a shoestring budget isn’t impossible. By following this advice, you can emerge from this recession with your health—and your bank account—intact.

Gary Applebaum, MD is a senior fellow at the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest. He is the former Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Officer of Erickson Retirement Communities.

Calcium is key to strong bones for a lifetime

 —Gerald F. Joseph, MD, President of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG)

Drink your milk—it’s often a message to children, but adults can also benefit from this advice.

Drinking milk—and for that matter—eating yogurt, leafy green vegetables, nuts, seafood, and fortified juices and cereals are all great ways to boost your daily intake of calcium, a mineral that plays a vital role in maintaining the body’s structure and function. Calcium builds bones and keeps them strong. It also helps muscles to contract, blood to clot, and your heart to pump.

Getting enough calcium combats the bone loss that naturally increases with age. This is especially important for women, who are much more likely than men to have problems related to weak bones. Eighty percent of the ten million Americans who have osteoporosis, a debilitating disease marked by porous, fragile bones, are women. Another thirty-seven to fifty percent of women over fifty have osteopenia (low bone mass). Both conditions put sufferers at risk for bone fractures, which can take longer to heal as you age and can cause major mobility problems, or sometimes death.

You may be at higher risk if you have a personal or family history of bone fractures, eat a diet low in calcium, do not exercise, weigh 127 pounds or less, have a history of falls, are Caucasian, are in poor health, or use alcohol and tobacco. Regardless of whether risk factors are present, many women are unaware that their bones are brittle until they break one.

To prevent fractures and identify bone weakness, ACOG recommends that women age sixty-five and older or women who have had a fracture be tested for bone mineral density. Postmenopausal women with one or more risk factors for osteoporosis should also be tested.

The average American only gets 500 to 750 milligrams of calcium each day, far short of the recommended daily intake. Premenopausal women, or menopausal women who take estrogen, need a thousand milligrams of calcium per day. Post-menopausal women who do not take estrogen should get fifteen hundred milligrams. Daily intake of vitamin D, the fat-soluble vitamin that helps the body absorb calcium, should be between two hundred and six hundred IUs (International Units), depending on a woman’s age. Drink milk, eat vitamin D-fortified foods, or get fifteen minutes of sun exposure on your hands and face or arms a few days a week to ensure you get enough. Your doctor can also suggest a calcium and vitamin D supplement if you don’t get enough from your diet alone.

You can further help strengthen bones by engaging in weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, tennis, dancing, yoga, or tai chi. Additionally, certain types of hormone therapy and other drugs containing bisphosphonates, estrogen, and calcitonin can also help prevent fractures. Talk to your doctor about medications that may work for you.

Healthy Geezer

 The Healthy Geezer

—Fred Cicetti

Q: I’m sixty-seven and have always had very good hearing. Lately, I’ve noticed that I can’t pick up some things my granddaughter says. Is this significant?

A: About one in three Americans over sixty suffer from loss of hearing, which can range from the inability to hear certain voices to deafness.

There are two basic categories of hearing loss. One is caused by damage to the inner ear or the auditory nerve. This type of hearing loss is permanent. The second kind occurs when sound can’t reach the inner ear. This can be repaired medically or surgically.

Presbycusis, one form of hearing loss, occurs with age. Presbycusis can be caused by changes in the inner ear, auditory nerve, middle ear, or outer ear. Some of its causes are aging, loud noise, heredity, head injury, infection, illness, certain prescription drugs, and circulation problems such as high blood pressure. It seems to be inherited.

Tinnitus, also common in older people, is the ringing, hissing, or roaring sound in the ears frequently caused by exposure to loud noise or certain medicines. Tinnitus is a symptom that can come with any type of hearing loss.

Hearing loss can be caused by “ototoxic” medicines that damage the inner ear. Some antibiotics are ototoxic. Aspirin can cause temporary problems. If you’re having a hearing problem, ask your doctor about any medications you’re taking.

Loud noise contributes to presbycusis and tinnitus. Noise has damaged the hearing of about ten million Americans, many of them Baby Boomers who listened to hard rock with the volume turned up as far as possible.

Your doctor may refer you to an otolaryngologist, a physician who specializes in problems of the ear. Or you may be referred to an audiologist, a professional who can identify and measure hearing loss. An audiologist can help you determine if you need a hearing aid.

There other “hearing aids” you should consider. There are listening systems to help you enjoy television or radio without being bothered by other sounds around you. Some hearing aids can be plugged directly into TVs, music players, microphones, and personal FM systems to help you hear better.

Some telephones work with certain hearing aids to make sounds louder and remove background noise. And some auditoriums, movie theaters, and other public places are equipped with special sound systems that send sounds directly to your ears.

Alerts such as doorbells, smoke detectors, and alarm clocks can give you a signal that you can see or a vibration that you can feel. For example, a flashing light can let you know someone is at the door or on the phone.

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