How to spend less on health care

| December 12, 2008

Fuel isn’t the only staggering expense chomping at your income. Health care spending in America jumped 7 percent in 2007.

Fuel isn’t the only staggering expense chomping at your income. Health care spending in America jumped 7 percent in 2007 – twice the rate of inflation – to $2.3 trillion, according to preliminary figures from the nonprofit, nonpartisan National Coalition on Health Care. That’s $7,600 per person.

Small wonder that health is the third core reason why owner-operators fail, behind only poor truck maintenance and a lack of business skills. “A truck driver can find a way to pay a $3,000 bill. They can set up a payment plan,” says Dennis Carter, an insurance consultant with Adrian & Associates who works closely with trucking financial services company ATBS. “But a $30,000 bill will kick them off the road.”

For health care costs, as with fuel costs, truckers seem to have a bull’s-eye painted on their chests. They’re surefire targets for obesity and therefore sleep apnea, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease, says Dr. John McElligott, medical director and CEO of Knoxville, Tenn.-based Professional Drivers Medical Depots. That’s because of the nature of the profession: long hours sitting behind the wheel, lack of exercise and the unhealthy nature of most foods available to on-the-go drivers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has put the average life expectancy of a trucker at 61, or 15 years less than the average American male.

Most over-the-road drivers rarely have the time even to see a family physician at home, much less a doctor while on the road, says McElligott. Most also lack the desire for a disciplined approach to diet and exercise.

Not so with owner-operator Juan Astudillo of Laredo, Texas, a truck driver for 12 years. He walks laps around his truck whenever it’s parked and opts for the rear of the parking lot to allow himself some more time on his feet. “I try to eat healthy,” he says, choosing salads when the option is available. He also stores nutritious food in his sleeper.

Richard Adam Jr. of New Hampshire, a company driver who hauls lumber regionally, gets home nightly and hits the gym equipment in his cellar. If truck stops had workout facilities, Adam says, “I can guarantee you I’d use them.”

Complicating this health picture for many owner-operators is inadequate health insurance coverage. Matt Amen of ATBS says that only 25 percent of owner-operator truck drivers have worthwhile medical insurance. In 2007, the average owner-operator who spent money on health, dental and vision insurance paid $3,909, or 3.4 cents per mile, Amen says. That’s 7.5 percent of the average net income.

TIPS FOR THE SHORT HAUL
Caring for your body is like caring for your truck in that both involve products and services. The informed consumer knows how to get the best value for both. Here are ways to spend your health dollars wisely.

  1. Shop for medical and dental services. Ask different offices how much they charge for similar services. While the cheapest may not always be the best, three or four contacts should give you a good estimate.

  2. Compare pharmacy pricing. Consumersunion.org reports that stores in the same city often have widely different prices for the same medications. You also can buy your meds online.
  3. Buy generic drugs. By law, U.S.-made generic medicines are required to meet the same standards as their brand-name inspirations, but they’re far cheaper.
  4. Check your medical bills. Even a simple visit to the doctor can produce multiple charges from a lab or X-ray technician, and an emergency room visit or surgery can produce a stream of bills for months. Carefully review any medical bill before paying it. If items are listed as “miscellaneous” or coded, ask for details. Scrutinize statements from your insurer just as carefully.
  5. Negotiate rates. The National Insurance Resource Center’s website suggests that negotiation may work (that’s a strong may) for people without insurance in getting medical expenses reduced before the service is rendered. It never hurts to ask.
  6. Get a second opinion. If your doctor or dentist suggests a major operation or procedure, get another opinion. Some insurance policies require a second opinion for certain major procedures, so you could be liable for a big bill if you fail to do so.
  7. Verify coverage. If you’re insured, check with your provider to make sure any procedure that’s new for you, especially with a specialist you haven’t used before, is covered.
  8. Appeal insurance rejections. Most insurance companies have an appeals process in the event an expense is denied. Don’t fret yet. Most insurance companies allow for three appeals on a single issue. A bonus tip: Have your doctor or dentist provide a written explanation of why the procedure was necessary.
  9. Avoid hospital emergency rooms. If you’re suffering a heart attack or serious injury, use a hospital emergency room. Otherwise, they’re too expensive and often have long waits. Many communities have walk-in clinics that treat common problems such as colds, flu, broken limbs and cuts. There also are a small but growing number of truck stop clinics that serve drivers on the road who fall ill, including Highway Health Care in Texarkana, Texas, and several locations run by Professional Drivers Medical Depots and Roadside Medical Services.
  10. Keep up with tax-deductible expenses. Many medical-related items are tax deductible, including doctor and dentist fees, false teeth, prescription eyeglasses, hearing aids and crutches. Such expenditures “are only deductible in excess of 7.5 percent of the taxpayer’s adjusted gross income,” says Mark Miller, a tax manager at ATBS. “Unless a taxpayer has a lot of expenses, it is difficult for the taxpayer to see a real advantage in medical expense deductions.” And don’t create headaches for your tax preparer by mixing in receipts for drugs or medical services for which you’ve already been reimbursed through your insurer. Check with your tax preparer or visit www.irs.gov/taxtopics and go to topic 502 for more details.

TIPS FOR THE LONG HAUL
Preventive maintenance works. The more you keep your body in shape, the less downtime you’ll experience, and the less you’ll spend getting yourself fixed. These best practices will, over time, prevent you from spinning your wheels in the doctor’s waiting room instead of keeping them turning on the road.

  1. Get regular exercise. When you’re taking a rest period, instead of watching TV or other passive activities, exercise. Some things you can do in your cab, such as sit-ups, jumping jacks and stretches. Walk – or jog, if you can – around the truck stop lot. Whatever level you’re capable of, try to exercise four or five times a week.

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