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Some are skipping much-needed care to save money

Ginger Rough | 3/25/2009, 5:46 a.m.

PHOENIX — Karla Collier knows what it’s like to be sick. And to have no money. Or health insurance.

A few years ago, she ran out of cash and stopped taking her diabetes medication.

It was a bad decision, one that landed the 33-year-old Phoenix resident in the emergency room with dangerously high blood-sugar levels and a slew of other grave health problems.

“Oh, I was sick, sick, sick,” Collier said of the experience.

Emergency room doctors are seeing more patients like Collier these days, as a sluggish economy puts more Arizonans out of work and continues to wreak havoc on household budgets.

Experts say there are many ways to safely save on medical expenses. But a lot of patients are doing all the wrong things and putting their health in jeopardy in the process.

“There are worse things than being unemployed,” said Richard Watts, director of emergency and trauma services at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center. “And not properly managing your health is right up there.”

A survey released last month by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a California-based nonprofit that tracks health care issues, found that more than half of Americans polled said someone in their family had skimped on medical care in the past year. Commonly reported cost-cutting measures included not visiting the doctor for a chronic problem, not filling a prescription or eliminating dental care.

Not one of those is an appropriate solution to minimizing health care expenses, experts say.

When it comes to managing day-to-day health care needs, there is one generally golden rule: If you’re sick, especially with a chronic problem, such as hypertension or respiratory illness, you have to visit the doctor, and you have to keep your follow-up appointments.

It’s the only way to avoid making a bad situation worse.

“We have definitely seen a decrease in patients coming in because they can’t afford their co-pay, or they are simply postponing or not coming in for their follow-up visits,” said Dr. Emily Zaragoza Lao, a family-medicine practitioner at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix. “They figure, ‘If something happens, I’ll go to the ER.’ That’s not a good way to go.”

The elderly and children in particular need to visit a physician if they are not feeling well, not eating or seem lethargic.

If you’re generally healthy, there is much you can do to minimize costs.

The first, and easiest, thing is to communicate with your physician about routine needs without an office visit. Call and see if your symptoms warrant an in-person consult. You can also use e-mail for day-to-day matters.

Next, always be honest with your doctor about your financial situation. If your doctor recommends an expensive test or treatment, ask if it’s really necessary or if there are less costly options you can try first.

Dentists, for example, say some patients are choosing to simply have abscessed teeth removed rather than pay for more expensive oral-surgery fixes, such as root canals, crowns or bridgework.

“Right now, we’re just seeing people being much more conservative,” said Dr. Gary Jones, a Mesa-area dentist. “There are a lot of those decisions being made. It’s usually an issue of, ‘There’s a right way, and then there’s something we can do to get by until we can do it the right way.’”