By Andrew Housser
It would be nice if an apple a day were all it took to keep the doctor away. But for almost everyone, and particularly children, medical visits are as certain as cake and balloons at a birthday party. Still, you can reduce you and your family's chances of illness and injury by following these healthful steps. While you are at it, you can keep a handle on your budget to avoid going into debt for many medical issues.
1. Get your family covered with health insurance. Most people have the opportunity to enroll in health insurance offered by their employer. Those who have left a job can continue purchasing that same coverage through a COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) plan. The self-employed can choose among individual health plans – government health exchanges will open on Oct. 1 to help with that decision. For low-income families, Medicaid and low-cost CHIP (Children's Health Insurance Program) plans can provide coverage. Whatever your options may be, do make sure you and your family have coverage. Monthly premiums may seem high, but that is nothing compared to the cost incurred should a major illness affect you. Additionally, the Affordable Care Act requires that people purchase some type of insurance by 2014 or face tax penalties.
2. Don't skip out on the doctor. Well-person visits help ensure that you are doing what you can to maintain health, and prevent certain diseases or conditions. For children, they assure that they are where they should be physically and developmentally for their age. Besides checking height and weight, your doctor also will assess developmental skills like language and motor skills (rolling over, crawling and walking). This time of year is also the time for your child to receive any necessary immunizations. Don't forget adult immunizations, too.
3. Take care of your teeth. For kids, the American Dental Association recommends scheduling a dental visit soon after your baby's first tooth comes in, and no later than the first birthday (even if the baby has no teeth yet). This helps to identify tooth decay or other problems early. Plus, you will learn proper brushing techniques and tips for keeping your child's smile healthy. After that, every person should see a dentist every six months. If you need help paying for dental care, dental schools at universities often provide one alternative for low-cost services. Your child also may be covered by Medicaid.
4. Practice good hygiene. Kids miss nearly 22 million school days each year due to colds -- and that means missed work days for parents, which can have a financial impact. Almost every infectious disease, including the common cold, is spread through touch. That means frequent and thorough hand washings are a must. Adults and kids can benefit from the "alphabet rule": complete the entire alphabet song while lathering up and rinsing off. Use antibacterial products when your family is on the go. Teach kids to cough and sneeze into the crooks of their elbows, not their hands.
5. Eat healthy meals together. Most people are aware that today's diets generally contain too much sugar and salt, and not enough fruits and vegetables. Encourage better eating habits with kids by letting your child pick out some fruits and vegetables at the store. Then prepare a dish at home together. When it comes to fruit, stick to whole fruits as much as possible. An apple has more fiber and vitamins and less sugar than applesauce or juice – and it is less expensive. Children also tend to eat more wholesome foods when they dine at home with their parents. Besides, dining out with the family can be costly. Save restaurants for special occasions, and funnel your savings into an emergency fund or college account for a child.
6. Encourage activity. The importance of activity for adults and children can not be overstated. Experts recommend that kids get at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day. Adults who can join them will benefit their own health, too. Try biking, hiking or taking walks together as a family. Take your child to the playground. Encourage outdoor play like jumping rope, shooting hoops or kicking a soccer ball. Most experts agree to limit children's screen time, too. No more than two hours a day is a frequent recommendation (most kids are tuned in for triple that amount).
7. Prepare for emergencies. A medical emergency can set you back substantially when it comes to finances. Families pay about $1,000 a year for a healthy child's medical expenses alone. Savings can help. Some employers offer health care flexible spending accounts (FSA). With an FSA, pre-tax dollars go into an account to be used only for health care expenses like deductibles, co-pays and eyeglasses. Because any money left in an FSA at the end of the year is forfeited, you should only put aside an amount that you feel confident you will use. Another option, permitted with some high-deductible health plans, is a health savings account (HSA). An HSA allows you to make tax-deductible contributions each year to cover health care costs. Unused funds stay invested and continue to grow tax-free.
Unfortunately, accidents happen and health issues arise. Kids, especially, can be sources of major health-related expenses. They break bones, chip teeth, tear skin and put things into their mouths that they shouldn't. They also are more prone to illnesses like ear infections and strep throat. You cannot predict what is in you or your family's future. But you can and should be prepared financially to cover your family's health care costs when they arise.
Andrew Housser is a co-founder and CEO of Bills.com, a free one-stop online portal where consumers can educate themselves about personal finance issues and compare financial products and services. He also is co-CEO of Freedom Financial Network, LLC providing comprehensive consumer credit advocacy and debt relief services. Housser holds a Master of Business Administration degree from Stanford University and Bachelor of Arts degree from Dartmouth College.