Medical Bill Mysteries: New Tool

Stethoscope with a $100 bill

For the past year-and-a-half I have joined others in being surprised, frustrated and horrified by the “Bill-of-the-Month” news stories presented cooperatively by National Public Radio (NPR) and Kaiser Health News (KHN). The NPR/KHN team receives real bills from real people across the U.S., for treatments ranging from a cat bite and a knee brace to spinal surgery and stroke.

In every case, the consumer submitted the bill because it either seemed outrageously high or it just didn’t make sense. The investigative reporters dug into the issues, usually gathering information from the medical provider and the insurance company as well as the consumer. Sometimes they found errors that could be corrected to reduce the bill; more often, they uncovered prices that were simply inexplicably high. Sometimes, but not always, shining the light of publicity on the situation led to a reduction or elimination of the bill.

Last month Kaiser Health News launched “Your Go-To Guide to Decode Medical Bills.” This new tool includes three components: 1) Pro Tips for Navigating Surprise Medical Bills; 2) a helpful Glossary; and 3) an example of a medical bill and corresponding insurance documents, with notes highlighting key items to pay attention to. The guide is not a magic wand – it doesn’t make navigating difficult medical bills easy. But it does point consumers in the right direction, so we can get started advocating for ourselves and our loved ones.

The guide reminds us that our consumer options begin even before we seek medical treatment – with a set of items to check on before going in or making an appointment. If, despite advance preparation, you end up with a surprising medical bill, a key step is to request an itemized bill. Medical providers are required by law to provide this if consumers request it. Along with other tips, the guide identifies two websites that can help you compare the price you were charged with prices of other providers: Health Care Blue Book and Fair Health Consumer.

As consumers we need to be our own advocates. It helps to have some guidance on how to do that effectively!

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Navigation Apps- Failures

View of a car's dashboard, steering wheel, and street ahead.

My glove box is full of printed maps and I carry a road atlas with me on vacations. Even when my car was equipped with a navigation system, I still planned my trips with the aid of a printed map.

My experience using electronic navigation aids has been mixed. In the very early days of the programs, our home address was entered on a road one mile south of its actual location. Delivery van drivers had to be warned not to rely on them. We Extension field staff frequently have programs in unfamiliar locations and the apps have been helpful, but I’ve also had experiences with closed roads and wrong locations. This lack of reliability has taught me to allow ample time to search again when I land at the wrong place and ask a local resident for directions.

When it comes to travel, understanding how navigation systems work can help you pick the best one for the job. Examples of features that improve their guidance would be using traffic congestion to direct you to routes that are longer, but less likely to result in a white knuckle drive or traffic jams. Several commercial sites are available that rate the apps and share details about their operation.

Using navigation apps to locate specific nearby businesses and repair services has its own set of problems. One major navigation app has recently come under fire for a serious flaw in its program. Fake business listings are hijacking the names of real businesses, and then providing a phone number that calls a scam artist. The scammer is able to enter the fake business in multiple locations, making it more likely to appear early in the search results.

In the spirit of “buyer beware” it makes sense to use personal sources whenever possible for reliable contact information. Confirm business numbers by cross checking in a local directory or phone book. The Better Business Bureau or local Chamber office is also a source to confirm a location and phone number. Use the police department’s regular phone number if you can find no other source to confirm your information. IMPORTANT NOTE: 911 should only be used for an emergency.

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash is a Human Sciences Specialist in Family Finance who wants to keep you ahead of the curve on financial information.

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Peak Alert

Peak Energy Alert

I love the fact that our home has hot-water heat. As a person with allergies, I am not overwhelmed in the summer or winter when the central-air or furnace blows the collected dust out of the vents. But with hot water heat, there’s no option for central air conditioning; I would have to say that this week I would give almost anything to have central air! As I write this during a heatwave, it is expected to hit 95 degrees today with a feel-like temperature of 103 degrees. I can only imagine how widespread the brown-outs will be with everyone retreating to their air-conditioned homes and places of employment.

So, what about those brown-outs? In visiting with my co-worker (who has central-air) I have learned that our local energy-provider has a program called Appliance Cycling. This program will not only reduce the amount of energy used by the homeowner, which will reduce their cost…but the homeowner will also be compensated with a credit of $8/month for participating in the program.

When you sign up for the program, a technician will come to your home and install a small radio-control switch on or near your outdoor central air conditioner at no cost to the homeowner. 

If the demand for electricity escalates to a critical point, a “system emergency” or “peak alert” is announced, and a radio signal is sent to activate the switch on your air conditioner. Your outdoor cooling unit will then cycle off while the furnace fans continue to circulate the cooler, drier air already in your home. 

The program runs from May to September and the cycling events typically occur Monday through Friday from 1 PM – 7 PM…never on weekends or holidays.

My co-worker says she notices a slight difference in the temperature and humidity in their home during peak alerts but nothing that a box fan or ceiling fan can’t make up for. Do you have a similar program in your area?  What has been your experience? As for me…I think I will plan on supper at a restaurant!

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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To Buy or Borrow?

My family just returned from a camping trip in the mountains of Montana. Our decision as to where to camp was determined by the fact that not all campsites would allow soft-sided tents and campers because of bears living in the area. We drove up into the mountains to picnic, visit sites and see the wildlife…including bears. Those that were serious hikers wore bells so bears would hear them coming; as to not surprise the bears that might be along the path. Hikers also carry BEAR SPRAY…a kind of “pepper spray” to temporarily blind a bear, giving a hiker a chance to escape, if they did come upon a bear. This product was sold in all the shops for more than $50 for a small spray can…OR you could rent a can. If you were a visitor to the area, and would not have use for the spray once you returned home, renting was a good option. At $10 per day rental, you would have to spend more than 5 days hiking to justify buying the can of spray.

Our son almost purchased a family pass at their local pool because that is what they had always done. At the last minute, he changed his mind and decided to buy a couple of punch cards. They have hired a high school girl to watch their oldest child for the summer, and wanted their daughter and the sitter to be able to spend time at the pool. The family pass would not cover a caregiver…only family members. When he added up the number of times they visited the pool, divided that into the cost of the family pass, it made more financial sense to buy the punch passes instead of the family season ticket.

I can think of many times where a decision to rent or borrow was a better financial choice…like borrowing an expensive tool that you would only use once or twice. I can also think of times where I mindlessly purchased something rather than looking for a more economical way of doing something…just because it was easier, faster or just “the way I’ve always done something.” How about you? What are some ways you have accomplished something without actually buying something?

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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Coupon Scams

It’s time to buy picnic supplies, watermelon, hotdogs, and buns for the 4th of July.  Shopping with a list and a coupon or two would lower the grocery bill. Maybe that is why the $80 HyVee coupon scam is circulating again.

The coupon looks authentic and so does the web page where you land to retrieve your big bargain. In a congratulatory invitation, victims are asked to answer a “customer survey” that gathers their name, birth date, telephone number, and email address.  Sharing a social media link is required, expanding the circle of individuals exposed to the scam.  The personal information is then used for other scams or sold to scam operations.

The Coupon Information Center lists on their counterfeit notification page over 19,000 fake coupons.  Fake coupons are more likely to offer free items or high dollar values. They are also common in bulk coupon sales offers. (Manufacturer’s state on most coupons that the sale of their coupon is a violation of use.)

It’s illegal to modify coupons or use them for products other than identified by the manufacturer.  “Limited offer: one per customer” means just that, using multiple email addresses to receive online offers or making photo copies is a violation of law.

Remind yourself when you see a coupon with a value of $80 of the old saying: “IF it’s too good to be true, it probably IS!”

 

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash is a Human Sciences Specialist in Family Finance who wants to keep you ahead of the curve on financial information.

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Check Before You Go

Several years ago, my brother, his son and my son took my dad on a fishing trip. Dad insisted on taking his fixer-upper boat with its fixer-upper motor on his fixer-upper boat trailer…all of which he acquired for free or next-to-nothing. He had been working hard to get ready for this trip and was excited to see how seaworthy his equipment was. Dad prided himself on recycling and upcycling stuff and he was quite good at it. At the time, dad was in his early 80’s and was in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s…which looking back, should have been a red flag that someone should double check dad’s work.

My son loved spending time with his very patient grandpa in an amazing, well-stocked shop, where one summer he learned to weld as he created his first meat-smoker.  Their motto was, “Beat it to fit; paint it to match.”  The fishing trip turned out to be an opportunity for my son to repay his grandpa with time and a great deal of patience…as the boat, motor and trailer all failed in epic fashion…wheel bearings seized, motors died in the middle of the lake and the boat ended up with a huge hole in it.

My son recently purchased a fixer-upper popup camper which he is checking over before we head out on a 10-day camping trip to Montana. When I saw him last week, he shared his to-do list with me which would ensure he would “not repeat an adventure like the one he had with grandpa.”

As you head out for adventures this 4th of July weekend, you may want to check out this list by Consumer Reports.

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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Less is More

Woman holding clothes on a hangerIn December, the calendar may say it is winter, but I am never in the mood to do wintery things (decorate, bake and eat comfort foods, etc.) until there is snow on the ground. The same is true for Spring which officially began March 21…almost 2 months ago. The last of our snow recently left and the grass finally turned green and I am now just finding myself in the mood to do spring cleaning…which includes digging out summer clothes and putting away the sweaters.

As I put winter clothes away, I discovered that most of the items in my closet are worn year round…like a short-sleeved t-shirt, jeans, a black dress, a white long-sleeved blouse, a black blazer and dress slacks.

The CAPSULE wardrobe, a term coined in the 70’s, refers to a collection of a few essential, quality items of clothing that never go out of fashion, do not wear out, and can be paired with seasonal pieces. The key is to make sure your essentials are well-made and fit properly…basics that you can wear daily and from which you can create different looks.

If done correctly, a capsule wardrobe should reduce the number of items in your closet — and thus, reduce the amount of time you spend organizing and cleaning out your closet and donating unused items.

Because it is now okay to wear white after Labor Day, to mix prints, and to wear navy and black together, you will find the items in your capsule can remain in your closet all year, eliminating the time-consuming task of removing, organizing and properly storing out-of-season items.  Reducing the number of pieces in your closet also makes it possible to keep all your clothes in your closet, year round.

If these aren’t reasons enough to create a capsule wardrobe, consider the environmental ramifications of cheap, “disposable” clothing. Poor quality clothes lose shape and look tired after being worn only a dozen times. According to a 2017 report we are wearing pieces fewer times before disposing of them. The study says that more than half of all lesser-quality clothes are disposed of in under a year. It also noted that less than one percent of the materials used are recycled; as a result, “one garbage truck full of textiles is land-filled or burned every second.”

Buying high-quality, well-made pieces of clothing that will last years instead of months is not only far better for the environment, but it’s also better for your pocketbook in the long term. And, the capsule wardrobe has great potential to reduce the amount of time spent organizing, storing and cleaning out your closets.

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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Shopping for People

It’s a rare person who buys a car or a refrigerator without comparing several different options, probably from several different sellers. Yet we humans have a lot of trouble shopping around and comparing our options before we hire a professional. That doesn’t make sense when you think about it — our professional advisers may have a much greater impact on our well-being than our refrigerator!

I’m guessing that maybe there are two reasons we don’t shop around for professional advisers: a) we didn’t learn how from our parents (who may have taught us how to shop around for products from groceries to vacuum cleaners); and b) we feel awkward asking a lot of questions and interviewing professionals, especially when they are the experts and we may not know very much about the topic for which we are seeking an adviser.  This applies to attorneys, tax preparers, investment advisers and a wide range of other professionals. It probably applies to experts like plumbers and electricians, too.

I’m going to focus here on financial advisers, but the principles are the same for all professionals. Our financial advisers have a huge impact on our lives, so we need to get over our discomfort, and “just do it.” (forgive me for relying on a phrase made famous in commercials back in the 1970’s or 80’s).  Really. This is a time to suck it up and force ourselves to take on something even if we’re nervous about it.

Here’s some good news: reputable financial professionals will understand and support our desire to choose an adviser that fits our needs. They will generally be happy to schedule an appointment (maybe 30 minutes) so we can learn more about them – how they do their work, how they are compensated, what experience they have, and how they stay current in their field. Our job will be to go in prepared with questions we want to ask.  (Don’t worry — some resources are identified below!). And then our job is to finish the interview, thank them, and leave without making any decisions. That allows us to interview other individuals, check references, consider what we have learned, and follow up with additional questions before choosing the professional we trust to guide our financial future.

For ideas on what to look for and what kinds of questions to ask, I suggest you begin with information at the following links: FINRA (the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority); Investing for Your Future (national Extension system); Investor Bulletin (from the Securities and Exchange Commission).

Add  your ideas here — what are YOU looking for in a financial professional?

 

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Winter Weather: Time to organize!

In much of Iowa, our recent winter weeks have held lots of days suitable only for staying indoors. We’ve canceled or postponed many plans, and some of our dogs have missed lots of walks because some days were just too cold or windy.

So what can we do with those snow days?  I have an idea!
No, it’s not binge-watching your favorite shows or movies, nor does it involve baking. You don’t need ME to suggest those!

My idea is less recreational, but much more valuable in the long term: go through your files!

Cleaning and organizing files is a task we tend to procrastinate. But in an emergency, and even in many non-emergency situations, we sure would like to turn to our files and immediately put our hands on the document(s) we need. When need arises, we’ll be glad we invested some time in getting organized.

Here’s the good news: it’s a task that can be broken up into small doses.

  • If you already have a filing system, you can just go through one or two files a day, to pull out old materials that are no longer needed, and make sure the most current information is in front.
  • If you do not have a filing system in place, start with a small stack of papers from wherever you’ve been storing them. Create file folders or envelopes for each category of papers you run across. For example, if the first paper you come to is about your car insurance, then create a car insurance file. Perhaps the next item will be college transcript – if so, create an education file.

Well-organized files have three characteristics:  1) they are clearly labeled; 2) the newest and most important information is in front; and 3) out-of-date and unimportant documents are removed. Determining what is important can be a challenge. Some tips for starters: 

  • Insurance – keep the most recent summary of coverage (declarations page). In addition, keep the full policy booklet if you have one, and any updates you receive about coverage details.
  • Mutual fund accounts – keep your quarterly statements until the year-end statement arrives; that should include all activity for the year, so you can discard the quarterly statements. Keep all year-end statements, with the most recent in front. Keep the most recent prospectus. There is no need to keep annual reports.
  • Monthly bills – once you get the next statement showing that your payment was received, you can safely discard the previous statement, unless you need it for tax purposes.
  • Warranties and purchase records for warrantied items – keep as long as you own the item. Keep the purchase information longer if the item affects your taxes.
  • Taxes – after six years, they can be discarded.

Personally, my biggest filing problem is old folders with labels that have fallen off – I need to go through and re-label files. Which filing task most needs your attention?

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Auto-Pilot vs Mindlessness

Two cardboard boxes delivered to a residential home wait outside a black metal front door on a brick patio, Midwest, USA

We have frequently talked about strategies for making good financial habits. One strategies is to “make it automatic”. For example, if I want to save 10% of my monthly paycheck, I would have a greater chance of making it happen if I were to set it up with my employer. Each month, a portion of my paycheck could be auto-deposited in a savings account while the remainder of my check would go directly into my checking account. Basically, I made the decision once and it happens monthly without me having to remember to transfer money from my checking account to my savings account.

For the last couple of years, I have done a lot of on-line purchasing, including a large portion of my gifts and a few household consumables. Within the online shopping platform, I have always compared prices, companies, and options. I would also check Consumer Reports to compare brands and quality reviews. I considered myself to be a good shopper. When this online platform first arrived on the scene, I was diligent in comparing prices with our local stores to make sure I am getting the best deal.  In recent months, though, I haven’t done much comparison shopping;  …I just assumed…which I am sure is what online “stores” were counting on.  They hook consumers with the price, convenience & variety, and then later, when the prices rise, we either don’t notice or don’t care because we are hooked on the convenience.

This past week, a new study revealed that when compared to local store chains, this online shopping platform (the one I had gotten used to using) was not always a less expensive way to shop. This is NOT what I wanted to hear! I LOVE the convenience and the speed at which things arrive at my home. I WANT (but I don’t need) more brands to pick from.

So I have a mixed scorecard as an effective consumer. On the plus side, I have been effective in putting my savings account deposits on auto-pilot; but on the minus side, my desire to save money while shopping has slipped as it became a bit mindless. Now the I have to decide if the convenience is worth a slightly higher price.

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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