Treat Yourself to a Health Shopping Spree

Now is the perfect time to max out your free and discounted health benefits for 2018.
Illustration by Xavier Lalanne-Tauzia

We’re pretty tight-fisted with our money here at Free—some might even call us cheap—but if there’s one thing we believe in spending liberally on it’s our health, and more specifically what’s known as qualified medical expenses by the IRS. It’s a startlingly broad range of products and services that includes everything from major surgery to a tube of sunscreen to take to the beach. Even better, many of these things are available to you for free—or at a steep discount.


“Many people don’t know that their health plan provides coverage in full for certain health care services” said Paul Fronstin, director of the health research program at the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

Thanks to Obamacare, all health plans that comply with the Affordable Care Act come with some basic care at no charge to you, including the flu shot, tests for sexually-transmitted diseases, screenings for depression and alcohol misuse, and of course your annual physical. If you have vision and dental care coverage, you’re typically entitled to an eye exam, a pair of frames or contacts, and two teeth cleanings each calendar year. The services are free even if you haven't met your plan's deductible, so long as you use an in-network provider, although there may be a copayment of around $25.

In addition to the free services, you can get a bunch of health-related products and services at a discount of around 20 percent (depending on your tax bracket) if you pay with pre-tax money that you put into a flexible spending account (FSA) offered by your employer. “It’s a funny grab bag of things that are covered and aren’t,” said Elisabeth Rosenthal, Editor-in-Chief of Kaiser Health News and author of An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take it Back.

While some FSAs let you roll $500 of the unused funds over into the next year, many do not. That means any unspent money is gone forever if you don’t use it by December 31. “I think a lot of people don’t realize that there is a deadline for using up the money because they think 'that’s my money,'” said Donna Rosato, a senior editor at Consumer Reports.


So if you haven’t had a physical since you were in high school or have a FSA that still has hundreds of unspent dollars in it (like I do), here’s a list health care items you can get now either for free or at a discounted, pre-tax rate. "The point is you don't want to leave money on the table," said Rosenthal.

Free preventive care you can get right now

Let’s start with some of the services you can get for free this year, which include screenings for breast, cervical, and colorectal cancer, depending on your age and gender. Just remember to make sure you are using an in-network doctor before you schedule a visit, state that the appointment is for “preventive care” covered by your plan, and that you “want to be informed in advance if there are any charges that will not be covered,” advises Rosenthal. That will help avoid any unexpected charges after the visit.

The free services include:

Alcohol misuse screening and counseling Blood pressure screening Depression screening Diet counseling HIV screening Immunizations for diphtheria, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, herpes zoster, human papillomavirus (HPV), influenza (flu shot), measles, meningococcal, mumps, pertussis, pneumococcal, rubella, tetanus, caricella (chickenpox)
Obesity screening and counseling Sexually transmitted infection (STI) prevention counseling Syphilis screening Tobacco use screening and cessation interventions

For a complete list of free health services you can get, check out


Discounted goods and services you can pay for with pre-tax money

If you have a FSA as part of your health plan (check with your benefits department if you’re not sure), now is also the time to start using up any money you contributed to it, since there's a good chance the funds won’t rollover into 2019, Beth Umland, director of research for health and benefits at the human resources consulting firm Mercer, said. (You can also use pre-tax funds from a health savings account (HSA), if you have a high-deductible health plan, but there's less urgency to do that since you can use that money forever.)

Here are some of the best ways to use your FSA funds before they disappear:

Copays: This is the amount the doctor’s office charges you for stopping by even if the actual service incurs no other additional fees. Typically $10 to $50.

Lab fees: Doctors love doing tests and those are often done at out-of-network labs that charge you more money. What’s more, it can take months for these bills to surface. I just got one in August for a doctor’s appointment I had in January. If you have any unpaid bills for lab fees, now's the time to pay them off.

Prescriptions drugs: Use your FSA money to cover the copay on any prescriptions. If you need to get any refills, now's the time to fill them. You can even get a prescription for an over-the-counter medication (like Allegra or Flonase) that you can then pay for with your FSA money. Sweet.


Prescription glasses: The friendly sales people at the eyeglass store always try to upsell you to something not covered by your insurance. Normally I say no to fancier frames or progressive lenses but this year I have enough money leftover that I just might say yes. And if you wear contact lenses instead, you can pay for those with FSA or HSA funds too.

Health-related items you buy at the drugstore: I saved this one for last because the list is long, but it is truly amazing all the things you can spend pre-tax money on, using either your FSA or HSA. Here are some of the most useful items from the FSA Store’s exhaustive list:

Acne treatments (including face washes)
Allergy and sinus medicine (with prescription)
Contact lens solution
Cough drops or medicine (with prescription)
First aid kit
Hot and cold packs
Lip balm
Moisturizer (with prescription)
Motion sickness medicine
Nasal spray (with prescription)
Neck pillow
Pain relievers (with prescription)
Pregnancy and fertility tests
Prenatal vitamins
Reading glasses
Sleep aids (with prescription)

Just remember to always save your receipt (or an electronic copy of it) in case you need to prove that you really spent your pre-tax dollars on eligible items.

Follow Anita Hamilton on Twitter.