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The Healthy Living Magazine

Tips for Organizing Your Medical Documents

By Allison Tsai ,

Photography by Greg Larson; styled by Haleigh Eason

If your piles of medical and insurance documents have morphed into a tidal wave of paper, you’re not alone. “It may feel like you’re drowning in paperwork,” says Susan Weiner, MS, RDN, CDE, coauthor of The Complete Diabetes Organizer: Your Guide to a Less Stressful and More Manageable Diabetes Life. You’re keeping track of notes from doctor visits, medications, lab reports, and insurance payments—it may feel like you need a life jacket.

Come to your own rescue with a strategy to organize all that paperwork and a system to review it in a timely manner. Whether you get crafty with color-coded tabs or go high tech with an organization app, there is no question that getting organized can reduce stress and save you money. “My goal, both from the organizing perspective and the diabetes community perspective, is to help people make their lives a little calmer,” says Julie Bestry, owner of Best Results Organizing in Chattanooga, Tennessee, who also has type 2 diabetes.

What to Keep

With all the letters, bills, and appointment cards that collect on your desk, it may be a struggle to determine what you actually need to keep. You’ll want to hang onto most documents for about two years, says Weiner. Separate them into two categories: current documents and reference documents.

Your current documents are active—you use them consistently and need to keep them handy, says Weiner. Examples include your most recent health insurance policy, insurance cards and payer contact info, current flexible spending account receipts, lab test results, unpaid bills, and recent explanation-of-benefits (EOB) forms from your insurance provider.

Reference documents, on the other hand, are inactive and include “things like your medical history; old insurance policies, flex spending information, [and] lab reports; paid medical bills; and past explanation-of-benefits forms,” says Weiner.

A general rule of thumb is to keep your current records for one year before moving them to the reference category. After two years, you can scan and store reference documents electronically, and throw away the paper versions, says Weiner—or hold onto only digital copies to begin with. Keep these documents in mind when creating your system:

Explanation of Benefits

These documents come from your insurance provider and explain the medical services you’ve received, how much your insurance company was charged by your provider, the amount your insurance will cover, and what you will eventually owe. This is not a bill but rather a preview of the charges, coverage, and balance.

Medical Bills

Actual bills, or claims, come from your health care provider and let you know what you owe after your insurance provider has paid its portion. You’ll want to keep your billing receipt until you can match it to the amount stated on your explanation of benefits, says Patty Telgener, RN, MBA, a vice president at Emerson Consultants, a medical device reimbursement company in Excelsior, Minnesota.

Lab Orders

These are orders from your doctor to get lab tests done. Put them in a place that will remind you to get the tests done at least two weeks out from your appointment, says Bestry. That way, you and your doctor can discuss the results during your visit.

Pharmacy Receipts

Saving receipts can help you track your progress toward your deductible, says Bestry, especially if you can’t access that information online. Save larger purchases, such as an insulin pump or continuous glucose monitor (CGM), for after you’ve hit your deductible because that will cut down on your out-of-pocket costs for the devices.

Medical Results and History

These are results of your lab tests, screenings, and in-office checks, such as blood pressure, A1C, and weight, as well as your entire medical history, including all the prescription medications you take. You can often view these via an online patient portal (a secure website maintained by your health care provider that stores your medical history, test results, and more), which is a great way to eliminate paper clutter.

Appointment Cards

A little card is easy to lose. Instead, note your appointment information in a planner, or type it immediately into a calendar app on your phone, says Bestry.

Insurance Policy

Weiner suggests keeping a copy of your insurance policy and formulary in case you need to check the details of your plan and what medications are covered.

Flexible Spending Receipts

If you have a flexible spending account, and need to submit receipts to use your money, be sure to keep them in a specific place, says Weiner. Some plans offer debit or credit cards, which lessen the need to submit receipts—but you still may need to provide them if a charge is challenged.

Notes and Logs

Any blood glucose data, notes from your doctor, or exercise and food logs are importantself-care records and worth saving.

Go Digital!

Scanners make it easy to ditch the papers. Medical documents and records that you’ve had for two years or longer can be scanned and stored in a folder on your computer.

Tidy Up

More clutter-busting tips for the entire home.

How to Organize

Whether it’s a worn-in book or a stack of medical documents, sometimes it’s nice to have actual paper in hand. If this is your preference, Weiner recommends a three-ring binder with clear pocket folders and color-coded tabs. Label the binder with the current year, and then organize it either categorically or chronologically, says Weiner.

Categories might include primary care doctor, endocrinologist, dietitian, and certified diabetes educator. Within each category, you can break it down further with information from your appointments, stored chronologically. “This helps you to take a moment to remember where you were, where you are going, and set up some new goals,” Weiner says.

If you’re more digitally minded, you can use the same organization concepts on your computer or smartphone, says Bestry. One option is to scan all your paperwork, or download it from your patient portal, and create folders or files in programs like Dropbox, Evernote, or OneNote, or on your preferred cloud account. The benefit to this, Bestry says, is that you can access all of this digital information on the go.

If that sounds like too much work, take a look at your insurance portal. “Most insurance companies will now provide you with all your documentation online,” says Joe Mondy, a company spokesperson for Cigna. You can go back years to see your medical, pharmacy, and dental paperwork to get the entire picture. This is particularly helpful during fall enrollment time, says Mondy, because you can see how much you spent last year and plan for the future.

There is no one perfect way to organize, says Weiner. It’s all about what works best for you. Just taking that first step to devise a system will make that insurmountable clutter seem more manageable.

Paper Pitfalls

Knowledge is power when it comes to insurance paperwork, and getting things physically organized can help you keep track of things mentally. “When you’re organized and prepared, it takes the remembering out of remembering,” says Weiner, which can help you avoid these common insurance mistakes:

Waiting Too Long

Here’s why it’s important to stash your formulary documents in a spot you’ll remember: When it comes time for fall enrollment, or switching health insurance plans, you’ll need to thoroughly look through the formulary and durable medical equipment policy. Make note of all your medications and devices, and check that your doctors are in network to avoid paying extra. Formularies and preferred devices may change year to year, so your usual insulin may not be covered, or you may be asked to switch to a different insulin pump, says Weiner. You want to know this early so you can talk with your doctor about whether a switch would work for you—or ask if he or she would be willing to write a letter of medical necessity to your insurance company to keep you on your preferred medication or device. Don’t wait until you’ve run out of your medication to discuss this with your health care team.

Choosing Cheaply

High-deductible, low-premium plans are enticing because they seem less expensive, says Telgener, but they’ll almost always be more expensive in the long run for people with chronic illnesses such as diabetes.

“Those more-expensive, higher-monthly-premium plans many times offer more flexibility in formulary or durable medical equipment coverage,” Telgener says. And that helps with diabetes medications, supplies, and devices.

So, how do you know which is the best bet for your needs? Crunch the numbers. And that’s easier to do if you’ve kept your documents organized and easily accessible. Also helpful: setting reminders on your calendar to review your options before choosing a plan.

Alison Higgins, 31, who has type 1 diabetes, takes a day off work every fall to go over her insurance options and what those options are likely to cost her. She will first check the formulary to make sure her insulin and medications are covered. Next, she’ll go over the durable medical equipment section to confirm that her insulin pump and continuous glucose monitor are also covered. Then she adds up what the plan offers and compares it with what her out-of-pocket responsibility would be before talking with her benefits manager to answer any other questions. “I actually sit down and do the math,” she says. “And for me, it’s worth it.”

Paying too Soon

It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s best to wait to pay your provider bills until you can track and match them to an explanation-of-benefits form that came from your insurance company, says Telgener. The problem with paying too early is that if there is a discrepancy in the amount owed, it’s very difficult to get your money back once you’ve paid. Keeping orderly files is especially important in this instance. If your bills are misplaced while you’re awaiting the explanation of benefits, you could forget to pay. You’ll be less likely to overlook unpaid bills when they’re always stored in the same place.

Ignoring Your Cards

If you’re enrolled in a flexible spending account or a health savings account, you may get a debit or credit card that you can use for eligible medical expenses. It’s best to use those cards, if available, says Telgener. Stash the cards in a designated spot so you’ll be less likely to forget them when going to the doctor or pharmacy. Or store them in your wallet at all times. They make it easy to keep track of how much you have left in your account, and you usually don’t have to submit claims, which you may forget to do, or do incorrectly.

Not Having the Talk

Speak with your benefits manager to understand what is offered by your plan. For instance, mail-order prescription plans often allow you to order three months of your medications at a reduced co-pay. Most insurance companies also offer payment plans if you know you’re going to hit your durable medical equipment deductible that year, says Higgins. This allows you to pay off the deductible throughout the year while using your insurance as if you’ve already hit that deductible. “Sometimes you have to ask for them, but if you get on the payment plan up front, then you can go ahead and get the diabetes supplies you need [and not skimp each month],” she says.