June 8, 2009

Defend against debt collectors

Posted: 11:12 AM ET

78,838. According to the federal government, that’s the number of people who formally complained about debt collectors last year. As more and more consumers are falling behind on their bills, the collections industry is trying harder than ever to collect that debt.


According to the Federal Trade Commission, more complaints are lodged against the debt collection industry than any other. And they’re reportedly using technology like social networking sites or cell phone texting to get you to pay up. Experts say we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg.

1) Know the rules

First, there are strict laws about how debt collectors have to do business. They must identify themselves as debt collectors. They can’t harass you and they can’t talk about your debt to anyone but you or your attorney. You shouldn’t be getting phone calls before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. They can’t threaten to sue you if they don’t have any intention to do so. And, they can’t misrepresent the amount you owe.

2) Stick with a 401(k)

First, if you’ve recently been laid off or you’ve lost your job, you may consider keeping your money with your old employer instead of rolling it over into an IRA. That’s because 401(k) plans are off-limits to creditors. IRAs have more limited safeguards. For example your money is protected in an IRA up to $1 million only in the case of a personal bankruptcy. But in other cases, state law determines how protected your IRA is from creditors. There may be a cap placed on exactly how much is shielded from these creditors according to Jay Adkisson, a California attorney who specializes in asset protection.

3) Don’t file bankruptcy unnecessarily

Sometimes people file bankruptcy in order to get creditors to stop calling them. But this is an expensive and unnecessary step if you just want creditors to stop calling you. Instead, write a letter to the debt collector and send it certified mail and pay for a return receipt so you know the collector received it. Once they get your letter they can’t contact you again except to tell you they won’t contact you anymore or they’re taking action against you - say, filing a lawsuit. Remember, just because they’re not contacting you anymore doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t owe the debt.

Watch Gerri's Top Tips daily at 11:20 am ET on CNN

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Filed under: Cohen • Economy • Finance • Living • Willis

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March 19, 2009

How to save money on prescription drugs

Posted: 02:33 PM ET

A new report from Consumer Reports finds that many Americans are having trouble affording their prescription drugs and have taken dangerous steps as a result.


The survey, released this week, found that 28 percent of Americans have taken steps such as not filling prescriptions, skipping dosages and cutting pills in half without the approval of their doctor, and even sharing prescriptions with a friend.

The good news is that there are ways for everyone to save money on prescription drugs.   Here are some of the top tips.

1. Tell your doctor you can't afford the drugs he's prescribing.

According to the Consumer Reports survey, only 4 percent of those polled said they'd had a conversation with their doctors about the cost of a drug. You shouldn't hesitate to talk to your doctor about prices; these days, many people can't afford the skyrocketing price of prescription drugs.

2. Ask your doctor whether there's a generic that would work just as well.

It's amazing how much money you can save with this one little question. For example, if your doctor prescribes Lunesta, a sleeping pill, you could end up paying about $93 for 15 doses. Switch to zolpidem, which is the generic form of Ambien, and you'll pay $33 for the same number of doses, according to Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs.

To make it really easy, bring in a list of the $4 generics sold at your local pharmacy and hand it to your doctor. If there isn't a generic that will work for your particular problem, ask whether there might be a less-expensive brand name available. Dr. John Santa, director of the Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center, suggests wording it like this: "Can you tell me about other options that would cost me less?"

3. Ask the pharmacist for less-expensive alternatives.

If you didn't get a good answer from your doctor, ask your pharmacist whether there's a less-expensive drug in the same class as the one your doctor prescribed.

4. Use mail order.

You'll save money. Of course, this won't work when you need medicines immediately (for example, antibiotics for an infection), but mail order often works well for medicines you need to take long-term.

For more tips on how to be an Empowered Patient, check out my column at

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March 12, 2009

How to shop for health insurance

Posted: 05:10 PM ET

As the economy worsens, more consumers find themselves walking through the minefield of finding health insurance. In the past four months, 2.6 million jobs have evaporated, and analysts say half these people also lost their employer-sponsored health insurance.

So when you're out there shopping for insurance, how do you discern a good policy from a bad one? It can be very difficult, experts say. "I'm a 35-year veteran in insurance, and I still don't understand it," says Rex Bowden Sr., of Global Insurance Consultants. "It's fluid. Sometimes what you think it means, it may not mean."

To get started, you can look at ratings of health care plans by the National Committee for Quality Assurance, which, in conjunction with U.S. News & World Report, also puts out a list of the best commercial health plans.

You can also look at insurance guidance from America's Health Insurance Plans,Families USA and the Patient Advocate Foundation. For help in understanding insurance terms, consult this glossary from the NCQA, or this glossary from the state of New York.

On you can compare the basics of a variety of plans. While you're doing that, here are five crucial questions experts say you should always ask.

1. How much are my premiums and will they change?

Make sure you get the premiums in writing - and find out how long you'll be paying that particular rate. Sometimes the rate you're quoted won't last long.

"Think of it like a credit card. Sometimes you get a nice, low introductory rate, then after a year, the rate skyrockets," says Steve Luptak, the executive director of Healthcare Advocacy.

2. What are my deductibles and co-pays?

Know what you're paying for. A deductible is how much you have to pay out of your own pocket each year before insurance kicks in. Even after you've met your deductible, you'll likely still have to fork over a co-pay whenever you see the doctor, get a procedure, or go to the hospital. For example, you might have to pay $25 for an office visit, or $50 for a hospital stay. Visit, your connection for better living

3. Is the insurance company licensed in my state?

Fraud happens, Luptak says. "Will the company be in business when you need it, or is it 'Shifting Sands Mutual'? "

According to government reports, both employers and individuals are vulnerable to unauthorized or bogus health insurance sales. In a 2003 Government Accountability Office report, there were at least 144 companies identified for selling fake coverage to more than 200,000 policyholders - leaving a at least $252 million in unpaid medical claims.

To make sure the company you're about to send your money to is legit, go to the National Association of Insurance Commissioner's Web site and find state-by-state complaint and financial information about specific insurers. NAIC also has a list of licensed insurance companies.

Experts also recommend checking out whether the insurance company is financially secure. "There's nothing worse than getting insured only to find out they're going out of business," Bowden says. You can research the credit rating of a company for free on the Web sites A.M. Best or Standard and Poor's.

For more tips, check out my column at

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February 13, 2009

How to get health insurance if you lose your job

Posted: 12:45 PM ET

In January, according to the Labor Department, over a half-million Americans lost their jobs.  For many, that means they are also losing their health insurance.  Negotiating with doctors and hospitals is just one thing you have to learn how to do when your insurance disappears, says Steve Luptak, executive director of an assistance group called Healthcare Advocacy. "I've had so many people who've just been laid off coming to me for help because they've lost their insurance. They're so stressed, they're so depressed, they feel like it's the end of the world," he says. "But there are things you can do. It's not a futile situation," he says. VideoWatch for more tips for the uninsured »

If you want to try to get new, affordable insurance, or find programs that offer you financial help for doctor visits, prescription drugs and more, follow these steps:

Step 1: Get good advice

When you get laid off and lose your health insurance, you may need someone in your corner. Several places specialize in helping people find new, affordable insurance and free care:

Healthcare Advocacy

Patient Advocate Foundation

Patient Services Incorporated

Step 2: Search for affordable insurance

With advice from experts at the groups above, begin your search for affordable insurance. Start with COBRA, which means you continue with your employer's insurance, except now you're paying the entire premium on your own. You can learn about COBRA at the Department of Labor's Web site.

If you can't afford to go on COBRA, you're in good company; a recent study by the Commonwealth Fund found that only 9 percent of people who are offered COBRA actually use it. Sometimes it's less expensive to buy your own insurance policy rather than going on COBRA. You can compare prices at

Step 3: Get your child on SCHIP

Even if you have too much money to qualify for Medicaid, your children may qualify for SCHIP, the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Here's a state-by-state directory of SCHIP programs.

There are other government programs, too. Your entire family may qualify for insurance from a state high-risk pool if you live in a state that has one.

If you think you might quality for Medicaid, see this state-by-state Medicaid directory.

For more tips, check out my column at


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February 10, 2009

Tainted Peanut Butter: What is safe?

Posted: 01:42 PM ET

The more the tainted peanut butter story plays out, the more it resembles a Hollywood mystery. The FBI are now involved. They are searching for clues inside the Georgia-based peanut factory, Peanut Corporation of America. And as consumers continue to be worried, many are limiting their peanut butter product purchases. Sales have declined 20% since the beginning of the outbreak.

The question remains, what is safe to eat, and what is not? Here are tips to help in your search.

- Officials say peanut butter bought in jars at the supermarket are safe to consume. But the verdict is still out of peanut butter in nursing homes and schools. Also, be careful when purchasing ice cream or crackers than contain peanut butter.

- The FDA keeps a running list of recalled products contaminated. The most recent recall is the following brands: Casey’s, Parnell’s, Reggie and Robinson Crusoe labels. You can find a full list of FDA recalled products HERE.

Some peanut butter manufacturers are trying to lure back some customers by offering coupons, or just friendly messages to assure their products are safe. Click HERE to see what Jif has to say.

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February 2, 2009

Getting help for a child with autism

Posted: 03:21 PM ET

This week for CNN American Morning, I’m sharing the story of the Bilson family, whose 13-year-old daughter, Marissa, has autism. The Bilsons have had a tough time with Marissa; she often pitches fits, and the entire family suffers. Not knowing what to do next, the Bilsons called in a therapist who spent the week with them, teaching them skills for making life better for Marissa and for the rest of the family. You can read more about Marissa here, and see a video about the therapy here.

Here’s the problem: the therapy costs about $20,000 for the week. The Bilsons received it for free, because our cameras were videotaping it, but that price tag is out of reach for most families with autistic children. So what are some affordable approaches for these families? There are many affordable programs out there, but it’s not always clear how parents can access them. Here, from mothers of children with autism, are ways parents can advocate for their children with autism, from babyhood through the school years.

1. Trouble getting a diagnosis? Bring in a video, letters.

The first step towards getting assistance for your child is to get a diagnosis of autism. Some parents have had difficulty with this, since a child doesn’t always display the worrisome behavior during a doctor’s appointment. If this is the case,  Alison Singer, executive vice president of Autism Speaks, an awareness and advocacy organization, suggests videotaping your child's behavior and showing it to the doctor. "You could play it on your laptop, or even just bring in the video camera," she says.

Getting a letter of support from your child's day-care provider or preschool teacher might also help.  "Teachers are seen as other professionals, and a letter saying, 'In 20 years of teaching, this behavior is really unusual,' can go far," says Singer, who has a 10-year-old daughter with autism. If your child isn't in day care or school, even a letter from a neighbor who knows your child could help, she says.

Educating yourself about autism will also help you have a discussion with your pediatrician. Autism Speaks, First Signs, and the American Academy of Pediatrics all give excellent overviews. Autism Speaks' Video Glossary has more than 100 video clips comparing the behavior of children with autism spectrum disorders with the behavior of a typical child.

2. Sign up for early intervention

Any child younger than age 3 with a developmental delay qualifies to receive services through Early Intervention, a government-mandated program that provides services to eligible children. Services are free of charge, and vary from state to state; they may include speech and language instruction, and/or occupational and physical therapy.

To learn how to apply for Early Intervention, click on this state-by-state directory from the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities and scroll down.

Early Intervention is invaluable because it links parents to services in the community, but Lisa Goring, mother of a child with autism and director of family services at Autism Speaks, warns that parents may also have to search on their own, since it can be hard to find services without a long waiting list. "There just aren't enough service providers for the kids who need them," Goring says. To find services on your own,, which offers information about special education law and advocacy, has a Yellow Pages for Kids that lists providers.

Long waits are so prevalent that Nancy Wiseman, founder and president of the advocacy group First Signs, whose 12-year-old daughter has autism, has a few suggestions for how to get in quicker. First, parents should stress the age of their child (many clinics will give priority to children under 3), and should ask the pediatrician to make a call to the specialist. More suggestions are in her book "Could it be Autism? A Parent's Guide to the First Signs and Next Steps."

3. Know your child's rights in school

When your child enters public school, he or she has rights under federal and state laws. The U.S. Department of Education has information about federal laws and state laws. The National Association of Parents with Children in Special Education has information about children's legal rights as well.

Wiseman says that even with these protections, you'll still have to work to get what's best for your child. For example, Wiseman moved to get into a different school district, and then a few years later, when that district no longer worked well for her daughter, she twice fought to place her child out of the district. "It's very frustrating to battle a school, and you really have to do your homework," she says.

You and the district will have to come up with an Individual Education Plan (IEP). To prepare, Wiseman recommends "The Complete IEP Guide: How to Advocate for Your Special Ed Child" by attorney Lawrence Siegel.

Also, school districts often have a Special Education Parent Teacher Association. Member parents often give good advice on how to work with the school district.


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January 22, 2009

Three ways to get EMS workers to take you seriously

Posted: 02:34 PM ET

A study published recently in the journal, Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes found that women who called 911 complaining of cardiac symptoms were 52 percent more likely than men to experience delays from emergency services.

The time it took for ambulances to arrive on the scene was similar for men and women, according to researchers at the Institute for Clinical Research and Health Policy Studies at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts, who published the study.

The delays began after ambulances arrived and while they were on the way to the hospital, the researchers found.

Part of the problem is that too many health care workers - doctors, nurses, paramedics - still think of heart attacks as something that happens to men, and not to women, according to Donna Mason, former president of the Emergency Nurses Association.

While she says health care workers are smarter now, too many still think of heart problems as a man's disease. "We need to change that mindset," she says.

Another problem: Women often don't have the "classic" signs of a heart attack. "Women don't have the 'typical' heart attack like men do," Mason says. "Women don't present as dramatically, and therefore aren't taken as seriously."

About a third of women experience no chest pain at all when having a heart attack, but often have symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and extreme fatigue, according to the Women's Heart Foundation.

If you're a woman who fears she's having a heart attack, here's what you can do to decrease the chance of delays in your emergency care.

1. "Don't be a martyr"

Dr. Nieca Goldberg, cardiologist and author of "The Women's Healthy Heart Program" says too often women hesitate to call 911 even if they think they're having a heart attack. "Don't be a martyr," she says. "This is a big mistake because time is of the essence."

Or as Dr. Jesse Pines puts it, "Time is muscle." The longer it takes to get treatment for a heart attack, the more extensive the damage to the heart muscle, says Pines, an emergency room doctor at the University of Pennsylvania Health System.

2. Don't play down your symptoms

Mason says in her 35 years of working in emergency rooms, she often saw women pooh-pooh their pain. "Women tend to blow things off, and men don't," Mason says. "This is a time when you can't downplay your symptoms."

Pines warns that telling emergency workers "it's nothing" or "it's just indigestion" could lead to delays. Don't diagnose yourself, he advises - just explain your symptoms in detail.

3. Tell emergency workers if you have a family history of heart attacks

Knowing this could make a real difference in the care you receive from emergency workers, Mason says.

For more tips, check out my column at

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January 12, 2009

How to live to 100

Posted: 04:26 PM ET

Happy 100th Birthday, Nana!

A few years back, I did a CNN documentary called the “Fountain of Youth.” In an effort to try to figure out why some people live to be 100 while most of us don’t, the show’s producer, Emily Probst, put a call into the Centenarian Project at Boston University looking for centurions to share their secrets for longevity. “They’ve got a great family for us,” Emily told me when she got off the phone with Dr. Tom Perls, who leads the project at Boston University. “Charlotte Chipman is 101 and Sara Weintraub, her niece, is 94. What do you think?”

“What do I think?” I said to Emily. “That’s my great-great aunt and my grandmother!”

Today, Nana turns 100. On behalf of my entire family and with great love, we wish her the happiest birthday ever and all the joy in the world. She’s seen a lot in her life and has kept up with it all (how many centenarians do you know with a cell phone, or email?), and her legions of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren love her very much.

So what’s the secret to reaching your 100th birthday? For starters, don’t smoke and keep your weight under control, says Perls. Of course, good genes help, too. Beyond that, he says staying alive involves having a healthy spirit as well as a healthy body.

1. Stay involved
“You very rarely find a lonely centenarian,” says Perls, noting that the people in his study are very involved with their family and their community. “If there’s a wedding, or a bar mitzvah, or a birthday, all you have to do is invite me. Sometimes I go even if I’m not invited,” said my aunt, who lived on her own until she died at age 101 a few months after our documentary aired in 2003.

2. Let go of the bad
“My secret is resilience,” my grandmother told me when I asked her how she’d lived so long. “Resilience is being able to come back after great disappointments and great hurts and great blows and truly be alive.”

3. Do what you love, love what you do
Rueben Landau, who was also in our documentary, practiced law until the age of 103 – he’s believed to have been the oldest practicing attorney in the United States. “I’m happy with what I’m doing,” said Landau, who died in 2007. “If a person’s happy in what they’re doing, that’s going to eventually affect their health.”

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January 8, 2009

Alternative Medicine for Kids

Posted: 11:52 AM ET

Nursing is supposed to be a calming, tranquil time for a newborn, but when Deb Kruse-Field put her son, Luke Field, to her breast, instead of cuddling up and eating, he arched his back and screamed.

"We would both end up miserable," says Kruse-Field. "And he started eating less."

Kruse-Field tried everything she and her pediatrician could think of to help Luke. She cut out foods from her diet that could be irritating her son's stomach, such as dairy, soy and chocolate, and her doctor prescribed medicine for his acid reflux. Both helped, she says, but Luke was still gassy, had diarrhea and spit up frequently.

Frustrated that Luke was still in pain, his parents, who live in Madison, Wisconsin, were nonetheless reluctant to take their baby to see more doctors. They'd gone that route when their older child, Anna, had stomach problems, and nothing the specialists recommended worked terribly well.

But then a family friend suggested they contact Dr. Adam Rindfleisch, a University of Wisconsin family doctor who specializes in integrating traditional Western medicine with alternative medicine.

Rindfleisch suggested probiotics  - "friendly" bacteria that he says have been shown to help babies and children with diarrhea. While probiotics didn't cure Luke, Kruse-Field said, they seem to have helped.

For Kruse-Field, finding a pediatrician who knew about both approaches - traditional and alternative - was crucial to solving Luke's stomach problems. While not everything billed as "alternative medicine" is suitable for children, there are several alternative treatments that have been shown to be safe and effective for kids. Here are some of the top ones.

1. Probiotics for diarrhea

"These are incredibly safe," Rindfleisch says. "We've even used them on preemies with gastrointestinal issues."

He recommends finding a probiotic designed especially for children, adding that kids who are severely immune-compromised, such as those with end-stage HIV, shouldn't take them.

The Web site for the Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine, or CAHCIM, has information about using alternative medicine to treat diarrhea. 

2. Chamomile tea for colic

In many cultures, from the Middle East to Latin America, parents give chamomile tea to their cranky babies. "What that tells me is that over thousands of years, people have figured out that it works," says Dr. Sandy Newmark, who's on the faculty at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona.

Newmark recommends steeping a teaspoon of dried chamomile, or a tablespoon of fresh, in hot water for five to 10 minutes. Cool it off and then give the baby a half an ounce to an ounce every few hours in a bottle, spoon or medicine dropper.

For other information on treating colic with alternative medicine, go to CAHCIM's site.

3. St. John's wort for mild to moderate depression

When her teenage patients get depressed, Cora Collette Breuner sometimes suggests they take the herb St. John's wort. She recommends 300 milligrams three times a day for teenagers. Breuner, an associate professor of pediatrics and adolescent medicine, says the herb should not be used for depression for children under 13.

The CAHCIM Web site has more information about alternative medicine and depression.

For more tips on how to treat your kids with alternative medicine, check out my column at

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December 15, 2008

What to do when antidepressants kill your sex life

Posted: 08:44 AM ET

Joanne, a 26-year-old nurse at the Cleveland Clinic, felt no sex drive for eight years. Nothing, nada, zilch. She wasn't happy, and neither was her boyfriend.

At first she wasn’t quite sure what was to blame for this sudden change, but her psychiatrist knew instantly. Her antidepressants were the culprit, he told her. Studies show antidepressants cause a decrease in sex drive in about one out of three people who take them.
But she says her doctor didn’t give her any advice about what to do. "My psychiatrist just kind of shrugged her shoulders," Joann says. "It was just like, well, that's a side effect of the drug. That's just the way it is."


Some 118 million prescriptions for antidepressants are written each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and studies show about one in three people who take these drugs experience a decrease in libido. Here are some tips from experts on what to do if it happens to you, whether you’re male or female.

Talk to your doctor about switching antidepressants: It worked for Joanne (that’s not her real name). When her psychiatrist switched her to a new antidepressant, "All of a sudden, my sex drive went through the roof. It was awesome. It was wonderful," she says.

Talk to your doctor about anti-impotence drugs: These have been prescribed to both men and women who suffer from anti-depressant-induced libido problems, although they’re FDA-approved only for men. Joanne took Cialis when, even after her libido returned, she had trouble reaching orgasm.

Testosterone: Testosterone, produced naturally by both men and women, boosts libido. Synthetic testosterone, however, has been approved only for use with men. Doctors can still prescribe it to women, but make sure you find a doctor who’s familiar with prescribing it to female patients, since the dosages are very different for women than for men.

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About this blog

Clark Howard helps you become a wise consumer. We know you're busy, and that's why Clark's tips are quick and effective. He'll arm you with the information you need to make smart choices. During these tough economic times, Clark wants to help you save more, spend less and avoid getting ripped off!