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What To Do When You Get Medical Bills You Can’t Afford

In the United States, the treatment costs of a single illness, accident or pregnancy can easily reach five figures. Even with insurance, that can leave you with an eye-popping balance due. Here, straightforward strategies to handle medical bills you can’t afford.

How to handle medical bills you can't afford.You’re young. You’re healthy. But that doesn’t mean you won’t have a medical emergency tomorrow, and get stuck with some whopping bills.

I speak from experience. Last year, I was pregnant. Everything went perfectly – I never had a day of morning sickness. I certainly never worried about how much having the baby would cost me, especially because I have health insurance through my employer.

But then my water broke – seven weeks before my due date. I spent six days in the hospital on bed rest, and then six more after I delivered a healthy (clearly impatient but healthy and beautiful) baby girl. She spent ten days in the neonatal intensive care unit.

The last thing that was on my mind during those weeks in the hospital was how much it would all cost. But a month after we all went home, the bills (from my doctors, my baby’s doctors, the hospital, labs, and so on) started trickling in. The whole shebang – from my Advil to my daughter’s incubator – ended up costing $144,000.

Thankfully, I had insurance to cover most of that cost. But because of my insurance plan’s copay structure, I still owed over $6,000.

Like many people who get stressed out when they open a bill with a big balance, I threw them into my bill folder to deal with “later.”

And later…and later… Every time I went to pay the bills, I panicked about how I’d be able to afford them. I have a rainy day fund, but it didn’t have as much money as I needed. And I didn’t want to tap into it because my husband was seasonally employed at the time.

But once I started researching, I quickly discovered that you don’t have to pay medical bills all at once, or even the original balance.

But let’s be clear here — you do have to pay them. According to the Federal Reserve, in 2012, the credit scores of two in five Americans were negatively affected by medical bills. One in six credit reports contains a medical debt.

If you get slapped with a big hospital or doctor’s bill, try one of these approaches:

Make sure the charges are accurate

One reason why medical care is so expensive? The system is kind of a mess and they make a lot of billing mistakes.

According to the Medical Billing Advocates of America, eight in 10 hospital bills include mistakes. Some of the most common include charges for services you didn’t receive and medications you never took. If you have an extended hospital stay, sometimes you’ll get charged a full day’s room rate even if you check out in the morning.

Work out an interest-free payment plan

At first, I considered putting all of my medical bills on an interest free credit card. But the one I have is only interest free for a year. After that, I have to pay something absurd like 19 percent interest on any remaining balances.

Because I have a balance on another credit card that I’m trying to pay down, I figured I wouldn’t be able to pay off this balance within a year. I’d end up paying even more money for these bills.

So I called the billing department for my largest medical bill, and asked if they offered interest free payment plans. Like nearly all hospitals and doctor’s offices, they did. “It’s often written in the fine print on the statement,” says Marcy Quattrochi, Manager of Financial Counseling at NorthShore University HealthSystem.

Depending on the hospital or doctor’s office, the amount you pay each month may be negotiable. At first, the woman I spoke with wanted me to pay $100 per month. Truthfully, that was more than I wanted to pay, so I asked her if it was possible to pay $50 monthly, for twice as long. She spoke with her supervisor, who agreed.

I was able to work out payment plans for all of my bills, including some follow-up x-rays on my baby. But if you have almost enough money to pay what you owe, another option makes more sense:

Ask for a prompt pay discount

Some hospitals and doctor’s offices will give you a one-time discount for paying your bill in one lump sum within 30 days. “We take 10 percent off,” Mary says.

Some experts suggest asking for even more of a discount. You can get some ammunition for your argument by using the Healthcare Blue Book to see what other nearby hospitals or doctors charge for the type of care you received. If you were charged significantly more, you can argue you deserve a price reduction.

But if you can’t afford to pay anything at all…

Apply for financial assistance

You’re not a bad person if you fall into this camp. If I didn’t have health insurance, there’s no way I’d be able to pay $144,000.

Hospitals do offer financial assistance, but each has its own procedure. At some, you have to apply for Medicaid first. If you’re rejected, then you apply for help from the hospital.

Other hospitals have an easier process, but it still requires a lot of paperwork. “We have an application that you must complete along with giving us your tax returns, bank account information, and paychecks,” Mary says. “After we review that, we determine a discount.”

Whatever you do, don’t ignore the bills. It can be tempting to since there’s no immediate repercussion, like there is when you don’t pay a cell phone bill. But like any business, hospitals and medical offices eventually turn over unpaid bills to collection agencies. And once they get involved, your credit score takes a ding and negotiation gets a whole lot harder.

Published or updated on April 23, 2014

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About Patty Lamberti

Patty Lamberti is a freelance writer and Professional-in-Residence at Loyola University Chicago, where she teaches journalism and oversees the graduate program in digital media storytelling. If she doesn't know something about money, you can trust she'll track down the right people to find out. You can learn more about her at www.pattylamberti.com. And if you have any story ideas, or questions about money etiquette that you'd like her or an expert to answer, email her at moneymannersqs@gmail.com.


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  1. May K says:

    my 25 year old adult child is on my health insurance plan (because of obamacare allowed her to be on it). Question am I liable for their doctor/medical bills? I did not sign any paper work – she did at the doctors office?
    So I am the subscriber – we live in California

  2. yvonne white says:

    I was a patient in a hospital in NC. I tried to drive myself so I would not have to pay the emt service to take me to the hospital. I had been sick for several months, been to the doctor, diagnosed with large hiatal hernia. The surgeon that did the tests said I would probably have to have it operated on. Not my first option, so I tried nexium, several other things, non prescribed as he would not give me anything, I guess to get sick enough so he could operate. I went to the hospital twice for dehydration, they did test on everything but the hernia, and I stressed when I went in about the vomiting and hernia. Again, no help. Went back to doctors several times, sick for months. Dr. ordered blood work, and told me I had elevated cholesterol, and gave me meds for that, and said keep taking nexium. Ok, still deathly ill, Blood pressure was elevated, had chest pain, from hernia, vomiting, disoriented, from being nauseous, not eating, dizzy. Family Dr. sent me to a cardiologist, have not been back too. I was so sick 2 weeks ago, wanted to drive myself to hospital, but stopped at the fire dept. as I was afraid to drive the 10 more minutes to the hospital. They suggested I should not drive, had high blood pressure, chest pain (hernia), disoriented from lack of sleep, vomiting. I HAD TO SIGN SO THEY COULD CHARGE ME, OR THEY WOULD NOT TAKE ME. Ok, so I did. Went the 10 minutes to the hospital, where they treated me for TIA, I live by myself, and am on disability, and have a very little retirement check from working. I told them about the hiatal hernia, bouts of high blood pressure, 2 herniated disc. Making a long painful story short, the hospital ran every CT imaginable, blood work, Mra’s, Mri’s, Ultrasounds, and God knows what else. The floor I was on was less than acceptable. Nurses were incompetent, too many incidents to mention. The er doctor, ordered all these test and told me, well, everything was negative, and the hernia is small, and would probably not consider surgery. She said, I will label this as an TIA, but I could tell she wasn’t sure. Gave me medicine for nausea, and said, by the way, you have a severely diseased Thyroid. I being alone, did not have anyone to question the things I could not think of, being so sick. I researched the Thyroid, and it had all the symptoms of a TIA, WENT TO MY Family Phys. I had written down everything, told him what medicine I needed and he said, well, that sounds right. I started taking over the counter Pro biotics, stopped all the meds the phys. had given me, as it made me throw up worse. 3 weeks later, no vomiting, blood pressure down, Hernia is almost not hurting, and I am feeling better except stressed over hospital bill, although I have Humana and it is really a good supplement. I was used, by the Doctors, the Carteret Hospital, and the personnel, for as much money as they could get. I will never go back to any hospital, I can’t afford it, and don’t know how I will pay this bill when it comes. It is sad what the Medical field has come too.
    Medicare, Humana is wonderful, but being abused by Doctors, Hospitals, Dentist, etc. I am 64, and dread the rest of my life, I should have become a Dr., although I worked in Radiology in a major hospital, but I was concerned more for the patients, and doing an honest job, but then again I was not a Doctor.

  3. Scott S says:

    Let’s not get it too twisted here…. What you are paying for, mostly, is people who don’t pay….. Here’s where I get upset, because the creditor always wins…. It’s like a casino. So, myself, being insured, goes in the hospital for herniating discs in my back…. I get treated based on triage, and given one dosage of pain medication, weaker than my normal pain management regiment from my doctor. Well, that’s a $10K visit for 6 hours of mostly waiting, uncomfortably. My insurance company receives a discount, that, a person going in there without insurance won’t. This is where it gets a little off for me. The average person knows that a car dealership can work with a bank and sort of “overlook medical bills” so why pay $10K, let alone $100K (My stay for appendectomy) which even on the best payment plan, would take 30 years for most people to pay off… My Insurance company, only pays $60K, not the full $100K. So the hospital pads this by charging the huge fees, over-billing for every product and service so they can offset loss. That’s method number one.. Method number two, they learned from lenders, sell the debt to collection for pennies on the dollar, and use the full price loss for a tax-writeoff… Most credit card companies count on a percentage of their customers not paying, for tax purposes… Wash, rinse and repeat, and you have a profitable business there…. The problem now? Well, lots of people lost insurance, number one, and number two, the Affordable Healthcare Act places price fixing upon the healthcare institution for it’s goods and services, basically, the gig that’s worked so well in the past….is up. Hospitals now, contract out to separate physician groups, this is the new trick, and each portion from start to finish of your care is billed from a separate entity… This gives them the ability to staff the hospital with sub-standard doctors, nurses, etc, while increasing the flow, basically the pump and dump method, without the liability falling on you (as a hospital)…. Now you’re just a facility providing parts, the labor is where the liability is, and you’re no longer subject to that liability, and business, is finally looking good again. It’s all about how the business deals with “loss” monetarily.

  4. Your story is one we help people try to avoid. You didn’t mention whether you were getting paid while experiencing your pregnancy complications. Most women are forced to take an unpaid leave, which only compounds the problems.

    Since many families plan having families in advance it makes sense to purchase short term disability to replace mom’s income, and hospital indemnity to cover her delivery. Extra benefits are paid if a child is confined to the NICU.

    The benefits paid for normal childbirth might have overcome most of your debt. Extra benefits might have been paid for the time missed prior to delivery and your sick infant, giving you financial flexibility.

    • Jodi Von Seggern says:

      Wonderful advice if you have the cash in the first place for the additional insurance. Now for the folks who don’t have enough cash to do more than exist this is just lots of friendly words. Once again, money and relief might be available, but primarily to those who need it least. I don’t take my meds because I can’t afford the co-pays on my fabulous insurance now. How does someone like me *not* become a liability to society when there’s no mechanism other than death to clear? Our family had a bankruptcy in 2011, so no relief that direction for a long time either.

      U-S-A! U-S-A! Our exceptionalism in being willing to sacrifice and kill our own people in the name of profit and selfishness is nearly unparalleled!

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