How I Saved $1,000 On Medical Tests

We all struggle with medical care costs, and I can show you how I found a way to save a tremendous amount of money on “routine” tests.

I struggle with gout.  It’s a terrible disease that tends to attack toes, resulting in swelling and agonizing pain.  I take one pill every day that helps diminish the chances of outbreaks and have had to learn to minimize my love affair with peanut butter.  My mother had the same problem, and there appears to be a genetic predisposition to the illness.  The true culprit is more likely the blood pressure meds I take than the peanut butter, but eliminating the meds isn’t a good plan.

Attacks of gout are caused by the build-up of uric acid in the blood.  The pill I take each day is supposed to help keep the level of uric acid at a minimum, and my doctor had to steadily increase the grams in the pills until the med was effective enough.  I still have minor problems from time to time, although it now tends to attack the small toes on my right foot instead of the large toes on my left foot.

In order to make sure my uric acid levels are under control, a simple blood test is necessary.  Since I’m also getting up in years, the nurse practitioner I see periodically also wants to check a ton of other levels in my blood.  As long as we can hold it to one vial of my blood I can usually survive a blood test once a year or so.

And then a few years ago when I got a surprise from our insurance company.

In the past, the blood test was always covered as part of a doctor visit, but for reasons the stone wall at the insurance company could never make clear, suddenly the blood test was no longer treated as part of the doctor visit.  It apparently was also not wellness care, because shortly after the test was done I received a bill for nearly a thousand dollars.  Nobody gave me any reason to expect a bill, and I was left with no choice but to pay up.  Sure, I got to pay it off interest-free over the next year, but I still had to pay the bill.

Can you imagine shopping at the grocery store and getting home and getting a bill for an extra $100 to cover the labor of stocking the shelves with the items you bought?  That’s what this bill felt like – a complete, unexpected smack right between the eyes.

The next time my doctor gave me a script to get the blood tests I politely declined.  The doctor was surprised and apologized for the expense the year before.  There was no way she could have known how the insurance company would deal with the test either, but she understood my reticence to spend that kind of money again.

So she gave me an alternative.

Community Hospital in Anderson is one of our two major hospitals.  It’s a sprawling complex, with numerous outbuildings full of specialists of all sorts.  It turns out that behind the complex is an unmarked building that runs special tests for patients.  The paperwork I have for it shows the treatments as still being part of Community Hospital.  There is a single sheet of prices under the heading of “Wellness for You” that lists prices that are very, very different from the prices charged at either my doctor’s office or in the hospital proper.  Here’s a copy of the sheet.

Instead of costing $1,000, a CBC (complete blood count) is a mere $20.  Other bargains include glucose testing for diabetics for only $10, a test that Bevie needs from time to time since she’s developed Type 2 Diabetes.

How can they charge so much less?  Perhaps the answer is in the statements you have to initial on the form; here are a few of the more relevant statements:

  • I understand that results are to be mailed to me within 5 working days.
  • I understand that if I want a copy of these results to go to my doctor, I am responsible for giving him/her a copy.
  • I understand that I cannot bill my insurance for this testing, and I will not receive a bill for this service, only a receipt for payment.

Add in the stipulation that they only accept cash, no checks or credit cards, and the way they keep costs down becomes clear: the tests are performed outside of the doctor and insurance spheres that make up our current health care system.  No reporting, no billing, just a simple transaction of cash for service.

Is there a similar “hidden” building for x-rays and MRIs?  Probably, but I haven’t needed those recently, so that probably bears looking into.  Probably should look into that -before- I need them!  I know that there are fee-for-service specialty businesses popping up that operate at much lower costs for treatments and tests; next time your doctor wants to run -any- tests you should probably shop around and find out what the costs are.

If we want to control health costs, it’s increasingly important that we take responsibility for shopping around ourselves, no matter what health system Washington presents us with over the next few years.

The Ojays have their thoughts turning to Money today as well!

Repairs 0, Replacement 1

When Bevie was driving to work the other morning, her car went over a bump, and one of the windows dropped open about five inches.  After she had arrived at work, she was able to slowly nurse the window back in place, but on the way home, it dropped back down again.  Repeated efforts to get the window to stay up failed, and she was finally forced to leave the car at the car place where she gets work done on the car.  Possibly a gear broke, or a seal went bad, or a widget got out of place, but as usual, the dealership had a quick, easy solution: for $239 they wanted to replace the motor that ran the window up and down.

I am familiar with issues with electric windows: my last two cars both had the driver’s side window lock in place and refuse to come back down.  Each time I asked about repairing the window I was told that the only thing they could do was replace the motor (usually at the cost of $249 or so).  With the first car I suggested that they simply swap out the motor in the driver side window with the motor in the passenger side door, but they assured me that you could not swap out a right-hand door and left-hand door motor because they were different.  For years I simply drove around with the driver’s window permanently rolled up, carefully opening the door at drive-through windows.

Over time, we seem to have built up the mentality that it’s easier or more convenient or cheaper to replace things rather than try to repair them.  When I was driving around in my Volkswagen beetle in the sixties I didn’t need anything but a simple screwdriver to replace a burned-out light in the headlight, but not anymore.  I’m baffled by the strange pieces of hardware that hold things in place and can’t seem to figure out how to even remove the headlight, let alone replace either the headlight or the burned-out bulb.  To quote Zork, I have neither the tools nor the expertise.

Some of that seems to be a result of the computerization of things.  Most new cars have an endless supply of hidden computer chips that regulate and control the car.  We all know you can’t fix a computer chip, you have to replace it.

Your toaster not working to cook all the slices?  There’s really no way to replace the broken coil, you throw the toaster away and replace it with a new one.

Many times in the past I wore through the sole of a shoe, and I can remember going to a cobbler – not the kind you eat, somebody who could actually repair shoes.  Do such people even exist anymore?

If your computer starts misbehaving, you probably can’t fix the registry or update the right drivers all by yourself – it’s easier to back up any files you want to keep and reinstall the operating system (or replace it with the newest version).  That hasn’t worked too well for me, I still can’t play CDs on either of the computers that Windows 10 was installed on.

Perhaps the most blatant example of replacement winning out over repairs is silverware and dishes.  Bevie now stocks paper plates, plastic cups, and plastic utensils in the kitchen.  Our dishwasher hasn’t been used in at least a few years, so we throw away our plates and forks and spoons after each meal and replace them the next days with clean ones.  Washing metal utensils must be too much like making repairs to be an option anymore.

At first blush this doesn’t seem like a real problem: if things are designed to be cheaply replaced, it shouldn’t be necessary to deal with repairs.  Unfortunately, replacement at times seems too much like a trick to make upkeep more expensive.

Even worse, it may be that we have built a mindset that doesn’t even consider repairs anymore.  Not convinced?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to repair the problems with Obamacare than to discard (repeal) and replace it?  Not in Washington!

The Bee Gees are probably best remembered for their string of disco-related hits in the late 70s, but they really had three careers.  The group had a few local hits and television appearances in Austrailia when they were barely teenagers, then moved to England.  When their first big single came out (New York Mining Disaster, 1941) rumors swirled around in the US that it was the Beatles in disguise, but we quickly learned it was the Brothers Gibb and a pair of friends.  A string of hits continue for a few years, and then battles over which songs would be the singles broke up the group.  They reformed in 1971 and had a few hits again, and then struggled until the Disco years turned them into mega stars.  Here they are with a number one song from their middle career, trying to repair a broken heart.

How About Some Financial Health Insurance?

June 27 is is #FinHealthMatters Day for 2017.  You can join the movement to show what #finhealth means to you.  To me, it simply means being able to continue living within my means.

Almost half the adults in the country struggle to have enough income to pay their expenses, and unfortunately, there are really only two ways to deal with that problem:

  1. Raise your income.
  2. Lower your expenses.

A great first step it to simply set up a budget and follow it for a few months so you discover what your income and expenses really are, and then look for ways to stop any leaks.

There is an endless supply of online articles about lowering your expenses, but most of them focus on little things like eating out less or reducing cable or phone expenses.

While every little bit helps, I’ve got one suggestion that has worked for me that has a much larger impact: the last time I bought a new car was 1975 (when I bought a brand-new Plymouth Duster for about $2,400).  Ever since then I’ve simply bought cars that tended to be a few years old, usually paid cash for them, and driven them until the wheels were ready to fall off.  I’ve only driven six or seven different cards in over 40 years, and the last few were simply cars Bevie was replacing with something newer.  The strangest car I drove in that period was a hearse, and I wasn’t entirely sad to watch it towed away when its break linings went bad.

What’s the longest period you ever when without a car payment?  Wasn’t your budget easier to manage during that time?  Think of how much money you could save over a lifetime if you stretched that out.

The average car now costs over $33,000, almost $4,000 more than I paid for my first house.  The really bad news is that the average car loan is now approaching 72 months.While the average interest rate is below 4%, consumers with FICO credit scores less than 620 pay rates of 9% to 14%,

While the average car loan interest rate is below 4%, consumers with FICO credit scores less than 620 can pay rates of 9% to 14%, putting even more stress on their budget.

The largest debts people have are typically housing, student loans, and car loans.  Perhaps instead of reading a few articles on ten ways to save money in your budget, you should spend a little more time looking for ways to get the last piece of that trio under control.

With a more entertaining story about cars, here’s Johnny Cash singing about another way to get a car.

A Different Kind of Billion Dollar Idea

From time to time I post a billion dollar idea that merely requires the application of non-trivial resources.  Today I want to report on an idea somebody else had and suggest that you help them reach a goal.

Helping people stuck in poverty is a challenge we can’t easily overcome, but in 2005 a new non-profit group was founded that enables anybody to help.  Kiva makes small loans (from under $1,000 to just a few thousand dollars) to entrepreneurs who need money to start or expand their business.  While most of the loans seem to be targeted to third world countries, there are even some loans made in the United States.

Kiva takes money from donors (like me!) and lends it out to various recipients in over 80 different countries.  Kiva does not make all the loans directly themselves, but they also support a large number of other organizations that they have vetted and worked with successfully (similar to the way Second Harvest supplies food to other food banks that actually distribute the food).

Over 97% of the loans made through Kiva have been repaid, an exceptionally high rate for small businesses.  To reduce possible exposure for individual investors, Kiva usually only applies a fixed amount of $25 to a specific loan (you can loan more than that to a specific individual or group, but I’ve never tried to do that).  Thus, to fund a loan for $1,000, Kiva puts $25 loans together from a group of about 40 individuals.  Details about the loan process are shown here.

All the loans have been investigated and approved before Kiva lists them on their website.  You can easily browse the loans that are awaiting full funding.  For each loan, Kiva shows some useful details:

  • a picture of the person or group asking for a loan
  • what the loan will be used for
  • the amount that has been pledged so far
  • the remaining amount that Kiva needs to complete the loan
  • if available, how much of your donation will be matched

You can search for loans using a large number of categories, including retailers, agriculture, water and sanitation, men or women, groups, single parents, and you can even search loans that are closest to being fully funded.

Note that I refer to the amounts you put up as donations.  In actuality, you are making loans, not donations, and most of the money will probably be returned as the borrower uses the money to enhance their livelihood.  You get an email every time one of your loans gets a repayment. No interest is charged the borrower or paid to you, but seriously, when was the last time a bank paid you any appreciable amount of interest on the money you left in your checking and savings accounts?  Once the loan is repaid you can certainly have Kiva pay it back to you, but it’s a lot easier to simply leave it with Kiva and lend it to somebody else.  Seriously, the people asking for money to buy goods or supplies or tools will make much better use of that $25 than any of us would.

My first exposure to Kiva came about when one of my sister-in-laws made a Kiva loan in my name at Christmas one year.  I’ve continued making loans as the funds are returned to my account, and from time to time I’ve added another $25.  It’s really painless for me and can be life-changing for the people who get loans from Kiva.  I’ve made hundreds of dollars in loans over the years without ever having to come up with that much money.

When making loans there are some administrative costs, but 100% of the money you lend goes directly to the recipient you choose: Kiva does not allow any of that money to go to any administrative fees.  While Kiva “suggests” an additional donation to help defray Kiva’s expenses, you never have to do that to make a loan; donations made specifically to support Kiva’s expenses eventually cover those costs.

Rather than link to a song today, I want to link to a special page from Kiva: the total loan amount Kiva has made is about to roll over to a billion dollars #1BillioninChange.  Here’s the total today; take your lunch to work for a few days, or skip a movie or two, and simply take advantage of the link on their page to make the world a little better place.

Adam West, Forever Batman

The first time I remember seeing Adam West acting was -not- in Batman!  Oh, sure, he had numerous appearances in TV Western shows and a pair of appearances on Perry Mason (was he the surprise killer?).  He also appeared for the entire third season of The Detectives in 1961-62, but I not only didn’t see the show when it was new, I don’t even remember watching the reruns later on.  There was a pair of appearances on Petticoat Junction, but the character he played then vanished without a trace.

No, the first time I was Adam West in something memorable was a Three Stooges movie!  During the thirties, forties, and early-to-mid fifties the Stooges shot an incredible 190 short films.  Television was looking for material to air during the day and running the shorts on local kids shows anchored by a local announcer rapidly built up a new generation of fans in the late fifties.  After re-re-re-doing their lineup (we got Curly Joe), the Stooges made a series of six films beginning in 1959.  The last of the films was made in 1965, and it included Adam West playing a

The last of the films was made in 1965, and it included Adam West playing a tenderfoot lawyer coming to the West to stop a gang of outlaws who were intent on slaughtering buffalo.  The Three Stooges did their best to “help” with the quest, but the reason I remember the film so vividly was something different: the outlaws.  In a brilliant move that was probably designed to drive promotion for the film in large markets, the outlaws were played by the men who hosted the local Three Stooges television shows.  For those of us in the greater metropolitan New York area, that meant that Officer Joe Bolton was in the movie.  He wasn’t a real officer, and maybe more an announcer than an actor, but playing an outlaw in a Three Stooges movie was easily within his talents.  While I don’t remember much about Adam West’s performance in the film, I can still picture what he looked like in his dude clothing.

Of course, everything changed for Mr. West on January 12, 1966, when the first episode of the Batman television show aired.  It’s difficult to explain the impact that episode had.  The next day the main topic of conversation in school was the Batman show: the Bif-Bop-Bam cartoon balloons, the costumes, the gadgets, the colors, and most important of all, the cliff-hanger ending for the episode!  For a generation that had grown up not watching serials in the movie theaters, a cliffhanger ending was something new and exciting.

Well, exciting for a year or so, and then the crowd moved on the other television shows.  Adam West was typecast for years, and it was several decades before he built a second career courtesy of Robot Chicken and Family Guy and other voice over work.  Thanks to the growth of modern comic fandom (or whatever name the historians eventually assign to our subculture) Adam West will be remembered fondly as one of our favorite actors.

Here’s the single for Neal Hefti’s theme song for the Batman television show.

Nobody Wants Your Stuff — Or Most of Your Comics or Cards

It’s the 1950s or the 1960s or maybe even most of the 1970s.  You’re getting married, and even before you send out wedding invitations (in envelopes, mailed with stamps) you have to trot down to the mall and register.  For China.  You have to struggle to pick out a set of China with a pattern you can stand to look at for the next fifty years.  And it has to include small pieces of China that any of your friends can probably afford to buy you as presents.

Probably doesn’t sound familiar to most of us anymore.  I can’t remember any of our four kids picking out china, or silverware, or silver trays and tea servings, or any of the wedding gifts that covered the tables at weddings in our past.  Oh, sure, people can still go to Wal-Mart and set up a wedding registry, but a quick look at the online listings show that the most common gifts are beddings, cookware sets, and complete place settings, not individual pieces of expensive china.  What happened?

Maybe we all just came to our senses and stopped trying to impress folks whose opinions never really mattered to us after all.  Instead of shelling out untold riches for plates that you’re afraid to damage, you can simply go to Kmart and pick up a box with plates and dishes for four or six people for $50 or so and eat off the plates with no concern for the plates’ well-being.

Or better yet, you can hit the garage sales or estate sales and pick up complete sets of the China that the last generation spent years collecting, one piece at a time.  There’s lots of that for sale at bargain prices because nobody wants it anymore.  Not their kids, or their cousins, or anybody.  Gone are the days of having a display cabinet full of expensive plates and bowls because we no longer have the need to “entertain” guests, we simply invite them over, set up a buffet of quick, easy food like pizza and wings and chips and dip, and stack some paper plates at the end of the table.  Sounds like progress to me.

This is symptomatic of a paradigm shift that is taking place.  In the past, perhaps because of memories of the depression in the 1930s and early 1940s when most people had nothing, the greatest generation and the younger Baby Boomers grew up accumulating stuff.  It probably started with functional stuff like furniture and kitchenware and clothing (and shoes!)  Later it expanded into collections of useless but art-like stuff like coins and postage stamps and records.  During World War II there were paper drives to create the recyclable pulp that could be used to support the war effort, and millions of magazines and comic books were destroyed nearly every week.  It wasn’t until the war ended that people started collecting and keeping books and comics and magazines.  As George Carlin observed, we then had to build bigger and bigger homes to put all our accumulating stuff into.

What was considered collectible expanded and we got Barbie and Hummel figurines and the Franklin Mint and sports cards and “antiques” and Cabbage Patch dolls and Beenie Babies and pogs and non-sports cards and video games and early personal computers and it seemed like it would never end and then it ended.  Now the kids that have grown up with a phone attached to themselves 24/7/365 collect and quickly discard pictures and memes and posts and videos and can easily find pictures of anything so why bother collecting things when they only take up space?

The sports card market is simply gone.  We used to buy the cards and read and memorize stats for our favorite players, but now that information and pictures and even videos are readily available online, so why bother having physical cards?

Every week we get calls at the store asking if we buy things.  We don’t get enough calls about selling us comics, but most of the comics people want to sell us are from the early nineties.  There are so many copies of those comics that there are no customers left who want to buy those comics.  Anybody who simply wants to read older comics can do so very cheaply online.  While older comic readers are still attached to their physical comics, the next generation of physical comic book readers doesn’t seem to exist.  Instead, they have Comixology (a division of Amazon) supplying them unlimited access to every Marvel comic more than six months old for less than $10 a month.  Perhaps if we had tablets that were 15 inches wide and 12 inches high that could reproduce a double-page spread you could hold in your lap it would replace the physical comics nicely.  Oh, wait, they do exist, they just still cost too much and aren’t quite bright enough.  Okay, maybe we’ll get those electronic comic book readers Real Soon Now.

If you search online for a bit, you’ll find a lot of confused posts by Boomers who have inherited a house from their parents that is full of a ton of stuff they are now stuck with.  One of the growth industries of the next decades will be people who can swoop in and turn all that stuff into cash.  The hard part of that industry will be knowing what prices all the stuff will actually fetch, not how much it is all “worth” based on price guides.  The only true price guide for anything anymore is completed auctions on eBay.

We also get calls quite often from people who want to sell us books, and magazines, and autographed items, and an endless stream of collectibles, but I’m sure we don’t have customers who want to buy those things, either.  Which leaves me wondering about selling back issues of comics.

In the past two weeks, we bought boxes and boxes of Magic: The Gathering cards from three or four customers who were simply trying to get rid of them.  I spent time looking through all the cards before giving the customers the bad news about how little they were worth.  I even chased a few customers away and told them to sell their shoebox full of cards at a garage sale for $10 to $20 because nobody plays with hardly any older common and uncommon cards.  I have stacks of rare cards left that won’t sell at $1 each, although my regulars did just about cover my cost buying a handful of rares and a few stacks of twenty-five cent cards.  We didn’t buy any of the Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh cards people brought in since cards from those games are even more difficult to sell.

Over 90% of our comic book sales are comics that came out in the past ten days.  After that, new comics simply gather dust until I box them up and put them away under a table.  We can sell some back issues for a dollar, but books marked $2 or $3 tend to stay around a very long time, even though price guides insist those comics are worth $6 or more…of course, the price guides don’t list any comics for less than cover price, proving how inaccurate the sole remaining price guide (Overstreet) really is.  There is still enormous heat on key issues, but non-key issues only sell when they are in extremely high grade or dirt cheap.  Perhaps comic books are now little more than a modern version of tulip madness, with silver age comics selling for high prices to people who buy them simply because they are convinced that they are a good investment because someday somebody will pay even more money for their treasures.  This can be summed up by the bigger fool theory:

I may be a fool to pay this much for a comic book, but somewhere there’s a bigger fool who will pay me even more.

Action Comics #1 and Detective Comics #27 may sell for over a million dollars, but it’s unlikely any comic from the New 52 will ever again sell for more than a few dollars…and most of them are already worth about 25 cents each at shows…and discounts are available for quantity purchases!

It’s okay to collect things that make you happy, just be sure you’re paying cash and not borrowing the money.  Here’s a warning along those lines from Traffic.

Just an Almost Local Band From Macon

Vanderbilt University had a concert during Homecoming on October 30, 1970, that featured the Youngbloods as the headliner.  The Youngbloods had a stalled career that flamed up briefly and then died out, and that concert was close to the end.

After playing in clubs for a few years, the group hit the pop charts with Grizzly Bear, a song that fought up to number 52 in the national charts near the end of 1966.  While that doesn’t sound like much, it was enough to get them booked on American Bandstand in 1967 ( here’s Dave Clark interviewing them before they sing their almost-hit record).  The album they released also contained the single Get Together which charted all the way up to 62, but they had little chart success with their follow-up album and singles.

And then, in 1969, a disc jockey at WABC-AM radio in New York City used parts of the song Get Together as background music for a public service announcement.  Awareness of the song followed, and the National Council of Christians and Jews used the record as their theme song on numerous national commercials.  The sleepy single was rereleased and was an overnight success in the Summer of 1969, and the Youngbloods were able to line up a string of concert appearances based on its success.

I bring them up not because of anything special, but because of their warm-up act.  Before the concert, news leaked out that a band that was playing at a club in downtown Nashville would be the warm-up act.  The band was fronted by a pair of brothers who were born in Nashville, although the band had coalesced in Macon, Georgia.  It was Duane and Gregg Allman and the Allman Brothers Band.

Note to self: I really do need to do a list of my top ten favorite concert warm-up acts.

After playing together and recording their first album in New York City in November 1969, the band decided that part of the country was nowhere they wanted to be and relocated to a small building near Macon to work on their career.  Our radio station at Vanderbilt had a copy of their first album, but I don’t recall anybody playing anything from it on the air before they showed up on campus.  Part of the reason we missed the album may have been the single the record company sent us: Black Hearted Woman was the release instead of Tied to the Whipping Post.  The real reason was something different: the studio albums failed to capture the sound of the live band.

A little more than a month before the concert, the band released their second album, and their record company released Revival (Love is Everywhere) as a single, ignoring two standards that were on the album as well: Midnight Rider and In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.  We were fortunate at that concert to watch the band all but invent Southern Boogie as they played a number of long versions of their songs.

And it was live performances that finally helped the band achieve the success they so justly deserved.  When they performed at the Fillmore in February 1970, a few of the songs were recorded, but those recordings were not released until 1996.  Fortunately, in March 1971 band returned to perform at the Fillmore East in New York, and this time the performances were recorded and several of them were put onto a double album that is included on many lists of the top ten live albums of all time.  Top 40 success eluded them for a few more years (their sole top ten single was Rambling Man in 1973), but they were one of the most influential bands throughout that decade and dominated radio airplay in at least the southern states.

The Youngbloods?  They were okay to listen to, but when fans called out for Grizzly Bear they refused to sing it, with one of them telling the audience they had outgrown the song.  Apparently, they had also outgrown Get Together, as they refused to play it until the end of their set, telling the audience, “Don’t worry, we know why we’re here.”  Wikipedia tells a story of them losing a chance to perform on the Tonight Show because they wanted to play a new song but the show only wanted to schedule Get Together.  I played their singles Darkness, Darkness and Sunlight on the air on my afternoon show, but almost nobody else in the country did and their group had no real success after 1970.

Gregg Allman wrote and sang lead on many of the Allman Brothers cuts, and with Duane Allman and Dickie Betts around to play guitar it’s easy to understand why Gregg was playing the organ.  It turns out he is also talented on the guitar himself, as demonstrated in live concerts.  Here’s the band in 2011 performing Van Morrison’s Into the Mystic.  They could make anything sound special live!