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Health Care in Hard Times

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4 ways to help keep medical costs down

When tightening the purse strings becomes a necessity, there are some things you shouldn't eliminate from the budget. Health care is one of them.

Cutting corners on your medical care might actually cost you more in the long run. More important, it may put your health in jeopardy.

Still, as deductibles and co-pays rise and many people find themselves without health insurance, lowering out-of-pocket medical expenses may become a priority.

These steps can help you stay healthy and lower your medical costs:
1. Practice good health habits. Smart lifestyle choices, such as these, are key:
  • Don't smoke, and avoid secondhand smoke. Lung disease, heart disease, stroke and cancer are just a few of the health problems associated with smoking that you might avoid by kicking your habit. For tips on quitting smoking, visit
  • Eat well. Diseases as varied as high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis and heart disease may be linked to diet. Aim for a diet filled with fruits, vegetables and whole grains. And go easy on foods and drinks that are high in calories, sugar, salt or fat.
  • Get active. Balancing your activity level with your calorie consumption will help you maintain a healthy weight--and lower the risk of diabetes, heart disease and osteoarthritis. Exercise can also strengthen lungs and muscles and may ward off depression. Aim for at least 21/2 hours of exercise each week. Don't worry about joining a gym or purchasing exercise equipment. A brisk daily walk can be beneficial.
  • Be safe. Wearing seat belts in vehicles and helmets on bikes reduces your risk of injury.
  • Practice prevention. Wear sunscreen to prevent skin cancer, and wash your hands often to keep germs at bay.
  • Manage stress. Stress can be toxic to your body and contribute to a host of health problems, reports Mental Health America. To combat stress, try to balance work with play and make time for relaxation. Always get adequate sleep.

2. Have a primary care physician. Seeing a doctor regularly can help keep your immunizations up-to-date. This may enable you to avoid illnesses such as influenza and shingles.

Regular appointments also provide opportunities for screening tests. These tests may catch health problems early, when they might be easier--and possibly less expensive--to treat.

3. Know when to seek help. According to the American College of Physicians, many minor medical problems correct themselves or improve with home or over-the-counter remedies. These treatments may be worth a try before seeking medical help.

For instance, if you sprain an ankle, many doctors recommend the R.I.C.E. approach to treatment--rest, ice, compression (wrapping the ankle in a bandage or an ace-wrap) and elevation (raising the ankle to prevent swelling from getting worse). If you have a cold, your doctor cannot offer a cure, but getting rest, drinking fluids and using over-the-counter remedies--such as an oral decongestant--may help you feel better.

However, if your condition fails to get better or if you're not sure whether you need assistance, you should seek professional advice. And you should always get immediate help for a medical emergency.

4. Ask about generics. Generic drugs have the same purity, strength and quality as their brand-name counterparts, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But they're less expensive than brand-name drugs.

Patient assistance programs may be available if you can't afford your medications. Ask your pharmacist for details.

Whatever you do, don't decide on your own to stop taking your medicine in order to save money. If you're worried about the cost of a medication--or any other aspect of your care--talk to your doctor.

Together, you can work to keep costs under control while staying on top of your health.