Could it be: $500 for stitches?
Actually, it can cost even more per stitch. No less a source than The New York Times reported this in December 2013, under the heading “Paying Till It Hurts.” The article relates how a woman visited the emergency room at California Pacific Medical Center after gashing her knee at a backyard barbecue. In less than an hour, nurses cleaned the wound and sealed it with three stitches. Then the hospital bills came: $2,229.11. That’s $743.04 per stitch. Or more than $1,000 per inch of thread.
Now there’s a real ouch-or, if you will, a major laceration in finances.
The Times goes on to report that Cal Pacific inflates its prices, the result of belonging to a powerhouse medical chain. But even if you sought treatment at a more reasonably priced ER, you could still encounter sticker shock on your hospital bills. And a day spent as an inpatient at an American hospital costs on average more than $4,000, The Times reports.
“A prestigious hospital or doctor group with a big reputation and lots of patients will be paid more than a small private practice for the same procedure,” says Jeanne Pinder, a former Times editor and the founder/CEO of clearhealthcosts.com.
And here’s the kicker: The first-ever Money Pulse Poll, released in January by Bankrate.com, shows that fewer than 4 in 10 have the cash to handle a substantial cost outside their budgets. When asked, “How do you tend to deal with unexpected expenses, such as $1,000 for an emergency room visit?”, a combined 28 percent answered that they would either borrow from family and friends, or use credit cards.
Some millennials like to think they’re invincible to injury, that vigorous health will hold up without a hitch, let a lone a stitch. But all it takes is one gaffe-falling off a snowboard and breaking an arm, for example-to create a financial plight that not even health insurance can cover fully.
(May we take this chance to point out this is among the many reasons it’s so important to have an emergency fund?)
“As providers, doctors and hospitals can charge whatever they want,” Pinder says. “They can charge $200, or $500, or $1,000. It’s sort of like an MSRP for electronics, or a rack rate for a hotel.”
Trouble is, you may not find this out until it’s too late. Medical care, especially in an emergency, doesn’t correlate with shopping around. It may even be the last thing on your mind when you need to visit an ER.
Still you can defend against the insidious ailment known as Wallet Drain. Anyone employed full time should use or create a flex spending account. The legal limit just changed for 2015 to $2,550 per year, which comes out of your annual salary but pays for health expenses tax free. Some employers make FSA contributions, which are not counted against the limit. Others might keep the limit at $2,500 if they set that rest during open enrollment.
HealthCare.gov states that you can use the money on expenses that include co-payments, prescription and over-the-counter medicines, and medical equipment such as crutches (for that snowboarding accident, natch). The only snag is that there’s a “use it or lose it” policy most employers use that means you’ll forfeit what’s left if you don’t use the money by the end of the year.
Others utilize a health savings account, or HSA. If you’re in a high-deductible health plan, you’re eligible and can deposit money into an HSA that’s 100 percent tax deductible. It becomes your money, and carries over to the next year; HSA holders can contribute up to $3,350 for an individual and $6,650 for a family.
In a fashion similar to IRAs, any funds you withdraw for non-qualified medical expenses are taxed at your income tax rate plus 20 percent. But the money also grows tax deferred-again, just as with an IRA.
Self-care can also bring the cost of your health care down significantly, and that’s much easier to do today with the advent of health maintenance apps. If an ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure, that’s easy to translate to monetary terms: pennies of preemptive behavior can equal hundreds of dollars in treatment, or more.
Here’s a list of five health care apps that can help save you money, track your vitals, and make your budgeting more efficient.
Zest Health (iOS, Android; free)
This app tracks everything from out-of-pocket spending to scheduled appointments, and allows users to call a nurse or a doctor straight from the app. The nurse concierge service is available around the clock for health care counsel.
S Health (On Samsung Android phones, free)
Built into Samsung’s Galaxy S5, this self-maintenance app features a pedometer, calorie counter, exercise tracker and sleep diary. You can also sync with third-party blood pressure monitors and glucose meters – all over Bluetooth.
HealthTap (iOS, Android; free)
With HealthTap, you can talk to a doctor live at anytime to get personalized answers. You can also access app recommendations direct from doctors, along with doctor-prescribed checklists that help you manage your health.
TracknShare LITE (iOS; free)
Weight, exercise time, back pain, stress: You can track it all with this app. An icon bank allows you to customize what you track, and daily/weekly/monthly graphs compare different items at a glance in vertical and horizontal view.
Symple (iOS; $2.99)
You can track up to 20 symptoms; record medications and exercise; and gather notes and photos related to your health and share an overview with your doctor.