Medical costs -- and costly errors -- are soaring

If you qualify, programs like the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Medicaid, Medicare, and the Veterans Affairs Medical Care Hardship program offer free or discounted coverage. For more information, visit the Foundation for Health Coverage Education or contact the US Uninsured Helpline at 800-234-1317. iStockPhoto

(MoneyWatch) It's not your imagination. Your out-of-pocket medical expenses are continuing to rise, according to Simplee, a website that aims to empower consumers to better manage health costs.

The average family of four spent $962 on co-payments, prescriptions, vision, and dental expenses during the first three months of 2012, according to the site. That's up 6 percent from this time last year and indicates that families shell out roughly $3,848 annually in out-of-pocket medical bills.

The site tracks the rise in out-of-pocket costs by examining the $200 million in bills paid by Simplee users. Costs were up 19 percent in 2011 compared with 2010, a site spokesman says.

Out-of-pocket cost data is helpful for people who have access to employer-providedflexible spending plans that pay these expenses with pre-tax dollars. Estimating the amount you'll pay accurately and in advance is key because these programs can save tax dollars, but you generally lose any money that's left unspent after 12 to 15 months (the time frame depends on the plan).

However, rising health care costs are also a call to arms that should encourage consumers to pay more attention to their doctor and hospital bills, says site co-founder Tomer Shoval. Simplee research indicates that more than half of medical bills contain errors, ranging from duplicated charges for the same service to being charged for services that were never rendered.

As a result, Shoval urges consumers to do a five-minute check-up on every medical bill. How do you do it?

Check your calendar: This is particularly important for stays at the hospital, which sometimes bill patients for more days than they were actually being treated. Make sure the dates of your hospital stay conform with the days on the bill.

Scan for duplicates: If the same service or CPT (current procedural terminology) code appears twice on a bill, or you receive two bills for what appears to be the same service, make sure you got two. Otherwise, they're double-billing you.

Look up CPT codes: These codes, which are sometimes defined on the back of the bill, signal to your insurer what services you received. If they're improperly entered, you might have trouble getting coverage or be billed for a service you didn't receive. If your bill doesn't include a definition of the codes, you can find them on the web, or ask your insurer.

Watch the deductible and discount: If you're using in-plan medical services that are supposed to be discounted, make sure you're getting the discount on the bill. Also be sure to track the amount you've paid out of pocket and note when you have satisfied your deductible requirements. After that point, the insurer should be paying the bills, not you.

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