Health care costs have gone up for the sixth year in a row, increasing at rate higher than inflation. Those who can still afford health care are often finding that their benefits are being trimmed while their co-pays and deductibles are increasing. With these growing costs is the growing importance of getting the most out of your health care coverage. Unfortunately, health care policies are often complicated and confusing, filled with jargon that can confuse anyone without a law degree.

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Many health benefits are being trimmed while
co-pays and deductibles are increasing.

So let's start with a few basic terms: a co-payment and a deductible. Once we decipher what they mean, we will attempt to explain how they are used in different types of health insurance plans. Perhaps a little bit of knowledge will save you some health care cash.

A co-payment, or co-pay, is the flat amount you pay at the time of a medical service or to receive a medication. Each health insurance plan establishes these fees up front -- they are often printed on your health insurance card. Insurance companies use these co-pays in part to share expenses with you. In addition to cutting a small portion of the costs, the co-pay is also used to prevent people from seeking care for every trivial medical condition they might encounter.

In this way, co-pays can save an insurance company a substantial amount of money. However, while the co-pay has been found to lower costs by making people think twice before running to the doctor over a case of the sniffles, they might also prevent people from seeking necessary medical attention. For example, a person with a chronic condition may need to see four doctors over the course of a month, all of which require a $25 co-pay. However, if that patient cannot afford $100 each month, he or she will most likely skip one, if not all, of those appointments. Co-pays can often total hundreds of dollars each month if you have several health ailments. In these cases, many patients begin to pick and choose which medications they deem necessary, making for a potentially dangerous situation. But most would say that the alternative -- no health insurance -- would be worse.

Don't Confuse Co-Payment and Coinsurance
Coinsurance and co-payments are not the same thing. A co-payment is a specific amount that you pay at the doctor's office before you meet your deductible. Coinsurance is a percentage of a provider's charge that you may be required to pay after you've met the deductible.

When you've met your deductible, you'll have to pay coinsurance (usually 20 percent of the provider's charge) until you reach your out-of-pocket maximum. After that, the insurance company will pay for all covered services to the policy maximum for the remainder of the year

Now that we've defined co-pay, let's move on to the deductible. ­