THE HELP DESK The Help Desk: Top Tips

Lower your doctors' fees, hospital charges

With or without health insurance, you can negotiate reduced charges with medical professionals. Here's how.

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By Gerri Willis, CNN personal finance editor

For more information on managing your largest investment, check out Gerri Willis' 'Home Rich,' now in bookstores.

NEW YORK ( -- We told you about saving money on prescriptions, but you can also save money on your doctor and hospital visits.

1. Negotiate

Make sure you tell your doctor if you don't have insurance. They may prescribe generic versions of your medicine. You may not have to take as many tests.

Now, if it's a hospital bill that's too expensive, you may be able to get your bill reduced by more than 50% if you pay at the time of service according to Consumer Reports. That's assuming you have that kind of money.

Make sure you talk to the manager of patient accounts. Since billing is time consuming and expensive, there may be incentive to get your bill reduced so it's off the books more quickly says Nancy Metcalf of Consumer Reports.

And it can't hurt to try to negotiate a reasonable payment plan. Hospitals that get public money -- and most of them do -- generally have funds of their own to cover uncompensated care.

Even if you do have insurance, you may have been charged out-of-network rates when you thought you were in-network. For example, you may have made an appointment with an in-network surgeon, but the anesthesiologist is out-of-network, leaving you with a hefty bill. If that happens to you, see if they'll accept the in-network rate, or try to negotiate a reduced rate.

To prevent this from happening in the first place, call your insurance company and get the list of doctors in your network. Then, call your doctors office and make sure everyone who is working on your procedure is in your specific plan.

2. Review hospital bills

Make sure you review your bill for mistakes. Hospitals make mistakes all the time. In fact it's reported that as many as 9 out of 10 medical bills from hospitals contain errors. Here are some of the most common errors according to Consumer Reports.

  • Incorrect dates of service. Make sure you're not being charged for a room on the day you were discharged from the hospital, which most plans don't allow.
  • Inflated room charges. Incidentals like sheets and towels should be included in the basic room charge.
  • Duplicate fees for tests and procedures.
  • Inflated operating room time. Your hospital should have an exact record of when your surgery began and ended. If you do find an error, call the hospital and physicians' billing offices.

3. Avoid the doctor altogether

If you don't have insurance and you have a relatively minor ailment, like a sore throat or an earache, consider going to a retail health clinic instead of scheduling a doctors appointment.

These health clinics have been popping up in big box stores, supermarkets, and drug stores. They provide simple, non-emergency services to walk-in patients, regardless of insurance status. They are much cheaper than a traditional doctor's visit because they're generally staffed by nurse practitioners and/or physicians assistants. They generally charge a set price for common services. And their hours can include nights and weekends.

To find a clinic in your area, go to the Convenient Care Association Web site at If you have a more serious or chronic illness -- see your regular doctor.

  • Got a financial dilemma? Go to to submit questions, read the Help Desk articles and check out new Help Desk videos. And tune in to CNN's Newsroom Tuesdays and Fridays, when Gerri Willis and other experts answer your questions.
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