If you’re having a hard time paying off medical debt, you’re not alone.
It was a problem for millions of Americans even before the coronavirus pandemic. According to a survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and The New York Times in 2016, more than one in four Americans had difficulty paying a recent medical bill.
Medical bills are an unfortunate fact of life in the United States. And unlike some other areas of your life where you might make some sacrifices to save money, your health is not an area where you want to cut corners.
Money expert Clark Howard says there are some things you can do if you’re facing medical bills or debt that you’re having trouble paying.
What to Do When You’re Facing Medical Debts You Think You Can’t Afford
Table Of Contents:
- Make Sure Your Bill Is Right
- Negotiate Your Bill
- Try to Work Out a Payment Plan
- Apply for Medical Financial Assistance
- Consider a Loan
- Know How to Deal With Debt Collectors
- Minimize Medical Debt by Negotiating Before Treatment
Make Sure Your Bill Is Right
Clark is a big advocate of negotiating the cost of your medical treatment before you undergo any procedure (more on that later), but if you’ve been hit with a big bill, you do have some options.
If you received the bill relatively recently, the first thing you want to do is make sure you’re not being overcharged. Hospitals and doctor’s offices sometimes make mistakes, and medical billing can be complicated.
You want to check your bill carefully to make sure you’re being charged for the care you were given and nothing more. If you see something on your bill that doesn’t make sense or doesn’t look right, it is perfectly reasonable to ask your medical provider to explain why it’s there. This includes both services that were provided and any medication you might have been given.
Enlist a Medical Billing Advocate
A 2018 Consumer Reports article reported that more than one-third of people it surveyed said they paid medical bills they weren’t sure they owed. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, identifying errors in your medical bill can be difficult.
Medical billing advocates are professionals who, for a fee, will review your bills. If there are errors, they’ll advocate for you and even negotiate on your behalf.
The Patient Advocate Foundation offers free assistance and can help you find a medical billing advocate. You can also visit Claims.org to locate one near you. Though most medical billing advocates charge for their work, the money they can save you could be well worth it.
Negotiate Your Bill
If you find your bill is correct but still not affordable, your next option is to negotiate the bill with your health care provider. This is something that’s especially important if you don’t have health insurance.
“If you’re someone without insurance, hospitals bill you based on a fake retail price that nobody pays,” Clark says. “That’s what destroys people’s finances and forces people into bankruptcy.”
Talk to your doctor or hospital about a discounted rate. After all, for them, some money is better than no money — which is what they’ll get if you just don’t pay your bill.
“You want to push really hard to negotiate for around 20 cents on the dollar,” Clark says. “That’s about what a traditional health insurer would pay versus retail.”
Try to Work Out a Payment Plan
Even if you’re able to negotiate your bill down, you’ll still likely have to pay something. If the total is too much for you to afford in one lump sum, try to work out a payment plan with your provider.
See if your hospital or medical professional will divide your total debt into more manageable equal payments that you could make over time. Ideally, there would be no interest or fees associated with the payment plan because that would just add to your debt.
Requesting a payment plan as early as possible after receiving your bill is advisable, as it demonstrates your desire to pay what you owe. This makes it more likely that your provider will be willing to work with you.
Apply for Medical Financial Assistance
If negotiating your bill and/or working out a payment plan still hasn’t made your medical debt manageable, there may still be hope. Much like colleges, many hospitals have financial assistance programs. In fact, according to U.S. News & World Report, nonprofit hospitals are required to offer it.
Also called “charity care,” financial assistance policies will vary from hospital to hospital but may allow you to receive free or discounted medical care if you meet certain eligibility requirements. Check with your hospital to see if you qualify.
Consider a Loan
While it’s far from an ideal solution, taking out a loan to pay your medical debt may be an option. This is especially true if you expect your financial situation to improve in the future. By taking out a loan in the short term, you might be able to avoid your debt going to collections and hurting your credit rating.
If you do decide to get a loan, you’ll want to make sure it has a reasonable interest rate and that the monthly payments are manageable for you. Of course, you will need to have good credit to qualify for the best rates (all the more reason to try to keep that credit in good standing).
Know How to Deal With Debt Collectors
If none of the above options work for you and your medical debt goes into collection, it’s important to know how to deal with debt collectors. You can negotiate things like reducing the amount of the debt and payment terms with collections agencies, but you have to be careful.
“If an item’s already been turned over to a collections agency, any agreement you have to settle a debt needs to be in writing — that whatever you’ve agreed to pay is payment in full,” Clark says. “Never give anybody any money over the phone. Don’t give your checking account number, credit card number or anything like that unless you have it in writing that payment of that amount of money is payment in full.”
Minimize Medical Debt by Negotiating Before Treatment
Clark’s most important advice about medical debt might be too late for you right now but could help in the future.
“If you have a non-emergency issue that’s going to require that you have medical care, you’re going to want to negotiate everything upfront,” he says. “A lot of providers, if you pay cash upfront for whatever your share is going to be, will offer you a better price than if you’re billed later.”
Make some calls to different medical providers to see what they charge for the procedure you need. If it’s available for less somewhere other than your preferred provider, use that as leverage to try to get a better price.
“Negotiating place-to-place is also really important,” Clark says.
He also notes that it’s almost always to your benefit to get treatment at a doctor’s office or clinic if you can. “Anything you’re able to do outside of a hospital environment, you want to do outside of a hospital environment,” Clark says.
Have more questions about dealing with medical debt? Contact Clark’s free Consumer Action Center.