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10 ways to lower high medical bills

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By Maryalene LaPonsie/MoneyTalksNews

Health insurance helps to make care more affordable, but it doesn't make medical bills magically disappear. No, we still have plenty to pay out-of-pocket.

In recent years, employers have shifted a greater portion of health care costs to workers. While people with employer-sponsored health insurance see their costs rise, it's nothing compared with what some of those with individual health insurance pay.

Fortunately, there are ways to fight high medical bills and keep your out-of-pocket costs to a minimum.

Click ahead for 10 tips to cut costs.

1. Shop around

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You wouldn't buy a car or a plane ticket without shopping around, so why aren't you also looking for the best deal for your medical care?

Of course, you won't be asking about prices in an emergency situation, and if you're having a complex operation, expertise will trump cost. However, when you need routine care or a non-emergency procedure or scan, you have time to check prices.

Websites like Healthcare Bluebook can help you determine fair prices for procedures and services. But ultimately, you'll need to pick up the phone and start calling to learn what's being charged in your area.

​2. Stay in your network

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While checking prices, make sure to stay within your insurance company's network of providers. Going "out of network" can mean significantly higher co-payments. In some cases, insurers may refuse altogether to pay for out-of-network services.

You likely can search for in-network providers on your health insurance company's website. In addition, check with the medical provider's office when calling for prices or an appointment to confirm the doctor or facility participates with your insurer.

​3. Skip the ER

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The emergency room should always be your last resort. Not only do you get less personal service, but you also are likely to get hit with an outrageous co-payment. Under my insurance plan, it costs $150 to visit the ER compared with $20 for an office visit.

If you can't wait to see your regular doctor, head to an urgent care center instead. The waits are usually shorter than what you'll find at the ER, and care typically costs less.

​4. Double-check bills

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Medical bills aren't always right. Medical Billing Advocates of America estimates that billing errors occur in favor of the health care provider 80 percent of the time.

Common errors include charges for medications never administered and services never rendered. Sometimes patients are double-billed or charged for room items that should have been included as part of a stay.

Always request an itemized statement, and check it carefully. If you find a mistake, call your provider's billing department to dispute it.

​5. Find a coupon

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We know you won't be able to find a coupon for your triple-bypass surgery or to have the doctor look at that strange fungus on your toe. However, you certainly can find coupons for prescription medications.

Drug companies want to gain your loyalty, so they're often willing to help cover your co-pay for at least the first few refills. Ask at your doctor's office about any coupons or samples that might be available. If you strike out there, head to the manufacturer's website to see what might be offered online.

​6. Ask for generics

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If you need a prescription, ask if there's a generic equivalent available. Generics are cheaper overall, and your health insurer may charge lower co-pays for them.

For other ways to save on prescription drugs, read our advice on how to safely save on medications.

​7. Head to a dental school

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About 108 million people in the U.S. do not have dental insurance, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

If you are among them, taking your teeth to a dental school can be a cheap way to get the care you need. (It's one of the five ways we recommend to slash your dental bills in half.)

​8. Become a medical tourist

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Traveling to another country for medical care might seem extreme, but it's an increasingly popular option for some people.

Medical tourism organization Patients Beyond Borders says consumers can save anywhere from 20 percent to 90 percent by traveling to destinations such as Costa Rica, Malaysia and India.

The most popular procedures include those that U.S. health insurance plans typically don't cover, such as cosmetic surgery, weight-loss procedures and fertility treatments.

Of course, foreign physicians and clinics are subject to different laws and standards than those in the U.S. Carefully research those standards to be sure you are comfortable with the level of care you'll be receiving in another country.

​9. Take advantage of health insurance perks

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If you get your insurance through an employer, watch for your chance to save money on premiums during your company's open-enrollment period.

Some employers pitch in a greater percentage of your premiums or contribute toward your deductible if you participate in health screenings or programs such as smoking-cessation classes.

Even if your employer doesn't offer premium discounts, your health insurance policy may come with all sorts of bonus offers, ranging from discounts at the gym to coupon codes at partner websites.

10. Focus on prevention

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Finally, the best way to save on your medical bills is to stay healthy.

Under the federal health care law, your insurance provides free preventive care. Use it. Weed out small problems before they turn into huge health crises.

What's more, load up on fruits and vegetables, get outside and walk every day, and say "No, thank you" to seconds at the buffet table. Being sedentary and overweight is hazardous to both your health and wallet.