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Funny Money: A Quick Way to Cut Medical Costs

Doctors and hospitals are all-to-happy to deal over unpaid medical bill.sI’m happy to introduce “Funny Money”, a new column offering irreverent but otherwise solid financial advice written by author and newspaperman Phil Villarreal. Weclome, Phil. DW.

You may think you’re doing OK financially, but most people are a medical emergency away from having to turn tricks for coke.

What? I was referring to having to take up a side job as a street musician in order to keep up with your soda-a-day habit. Get your mind out of the gutter.

Fact is, the insatiable maw of medical costs are the leading cause of bankruptcy. Once you’re released from the hospital, thinking you’ve recovered enough to function in society once again, along come a flood of bills that make you feel even sicker.

The hospital, attending physician, anesthesiologist and even the hospitalist — which I’m pretty sure isn’t even a real profession and just something they made up on the fly — are all begging you for whatever money the insurance company won’t cough up.

The bad news is that you have to either pay them all or funnel the money you would have used to pay your bills to pay the shady dude on the corner to make up a new identity for you. The good news is there’s an easy way to cut those bills without giving into frustration and pulling out a pair of scissors.

Hospitals see you as that broke ex-roommate who stopped paying his share of the rent seven months ago but still hasn’t gotten around to moving out. They’re burned so often that they don’t expect you’ll ever pay up, so they’re grateful to accept whatever dirty cash you’re willing to cough up before you speed off into the sunset.

The not-so-secret secret hospital discount

Nearly every medical billing office is willing to settle your account with a 25 percent discount in exchange for upfront payment, and all you have to do is ask for it. The tactic gave me such a sizable discount on my first two kids that I was able to afford a third, albeit on layaway.

The negotiation process is so stupidly easy, it can hardly even be called a negotiation. You just call up the office, ask them what the discount is for immediate payment and then read them your credit card number. Most billing clerks are so used to the drill that they’ll work with you instantly. Other times, they may just have to pull a supervisor aside to get the job done.

I enjoy getting the discount so much that it’s unhealthy. Like, I’m practically looking for excuses to go out and break my arm, just for the opportunity to high-five my numb, cast-covered arm out of the giddy pleasure of getting the hospital to knock $250 off my $1,000 bill.

One last thing

Some billing offices do what they can to steer you away from shaking down a live person for an easy discount. They’ll bill you by email and coax you into paying up online, where you won’t get the chance to talk down, or stick you with an (800) number to a third-party billing service that refuses to negotiate. Ignore these shenanigans and call the hospital or doctor directly to make sure you’re not railroaded.

So save on your medical bills and you may just be able to postpone the need to turn tricks. Or resort to prostitution, even.

Published or updated on January 16, 2013

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About Phil Villarreal

Phil Villarreal writes Funny Money weekly for Money Under 30. He lives in Tucson and works for the Arizona Daily Star. He's also an author, blogger and Twitterer.


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  1. Cameron Bell says:

    Thanks for the tip, Phil! I just saved 10 percent off a rather large bill. I’ll buy you a Sahuaro letterman’s jacket ASAP.

  2. Erin says:

    I have a huge hospital bill and have asked several people, several times, (on the phone) if they will give me a discount for paying in full. Answer: “No.”

    They’d rather I stretch it out for 2 years.

    • Erin, are you able to pay in full upfront? I think they usually require that.

      • Erin says:

        Yes, that’s what I offered. They said they don’t offer a discount for paying in full/up front, it’s just not their policy.

        I had heard of this “trick” a lot before, so that’s why I tried it on this recent bill. No dice.

    • It sounds like you’ve been thorough, but just in case, make sure you’ve spoken with someone with the ultimate authority to decide whether or not the hospital can offer you a discount. You are the first person I’ve heard of to have been stonewalled like that. Hopefully you’ve only spoken to underlings who are instructed to brush aside requests like yours.

  3. Wei, I would insist on speaking to a manager. The amount you pay the hospital should still be negotiable if paid upfront, even if you haven’t met your deductible.

    • Wei says:

      Thanks, Phil. It was a while ago and I have paid the bill (fortunately, it was not too much.). Good lesson to learn and I will definitely try next time!

  4. Laura says:

    I work for a medical group and we give an automatic 25% discount for uninsured patients no matter what. then on top of that, if you pay in full, you get a 20% prompt pay discount – and he’s correct, all you have to do is ask!

    • Wei says:

      I have a high deductible PPO + HSA health plan. I got a medical bill and when I call the hospital, they said basically it is the deductible I need to pay. But since it’s a high deductible plan, basically my insurance company practically paid nothing for me….So can I still get the discount rate in this case?

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