When you’re in the hospital, you’re fighting physically and mentally to get back to a good place — you shouldn’t have to worry about medical debt on top of everything else. (You should actually be able to focus on getting better, imagine that!) Unfortunately, millions of Americans who don’t have health insurance or who are under-insured find that after a stay in the hospital — or even a doctor visit — they’re hit with medical bills that they just can’t afford. One in five Americans can’t afford their necessary healthcare services, according to a survey by West Health.
With the unexpected medical crisis of COVID, many Americans have found themselves in the hospital for weeks or months fighting to stay alive. And life-saving treatments aren’t cheap. If you’re facing medical debt, there are ways to try and minimize what you owe, and get your bills paid in a timely manner.
Understand Your Plan + Communicate With The Hospital
If you’ve got health insurance, a great first step in understanding how much you’ll owe is to start with your policy — even if you already know the coverage is lacking. Oftentimes, we think we may understand everything our policy covers, but some procedures may be covered in part, and some prices for services may be negotiable. If you have some warning on the procedure you need, or the hospital stay you’re about to go through, check with your doctors or the hospital first to see if the treatment plan is negotiable, or if there are less expensive options that you can choose before you go in, suggests Allison Sesso, executive director at RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people eradicate personal medical debt. After you’ve done this, see what kind of payment flexibility you can achieve from your provider to slowly pay off your debt. And it’s that “slowly paying” that’s the key — Sesso says one of the worst things you can do is ignore the debt, even though it’s what many people end up doing. But when you do this, the hospital can actually garnish your wages (take money straight out of your paycheck) put a lien on your house, and damage your credit report with negative non-payment reports. Talking to your hospital to see what their policy is on paying the debt back is the best way to understand what you’re up against — and that’s true whether or not you have health insurance. Don’t be shy about telling everyone in your network of providers, along with your insurance company and the hospital, that you need help working out a plan and reducing the amount you owe. The more people who know you’re struggling, the more paths that may be presented to you to get to a better place.
Your Bill Isn’t Always Correct
When is the last time you reviewed a medical bill — I mean, really reviewed it, line by line? Up to 80% of medical bills are known to contain errors, according to Pat Plamer, CEO of Medical Billing Advocates of America. Oftentimes, we won’t even receive an itemized bill — they’re often available by request only. But it’s so worth it to make that request, and to review all charges carefully. No, it’s not going to be fun, (unless you just enjoy reading companies quarterly reports) but it’s absolutely worth a couple of hours of your time to potentially save thousands. Mistakes like being charged for an extra test, your insurance not being charged first for everything, or being charged for a procedure you weren’t aware of, are some of the biggest offenders. You might also find charges for medication you didn’t take, or an extra day in the ICU. If you have insurance, you’re not in this fight alone — your insurance company doesn’t want to have to pay more than it has to, either, in order to keep their costs low. So if you notice a discrepancy, make sure to inform your insurance carrier and enlist their help getting things corrected.
Negotiate a Payment Plan or Cost Reduction
The price you see at the bottom of your bill is rarely the final “official” price that you’ll need to pay. There is almost always room to negotiate. If there were specific procedures or treatments that you didn’t sign off on or don’t think were necessary, you can make a case to have those removed from your bill, to both your hospital and your insurance. You can also apply for the hospital’s program for people who can’t afford their bills. Some nonprofit hospitals have what’s known as a “charity program” but only about half (50.7%) of all U.S. hospitals are non-profits. Other for-profit hospitals are known to work with patients on what they’re able to pay. Typically, they can help you set up a payment plan over a certain period of time, typically over three to five years, says Katie Bossler, financial wellness expert at GreenPath, a financial counseling service. One silver lining here is that there is zero interest on these payment plans. If your bill goes into collections, there’s still no interest, and you can once again speak to the debt collector about a path for you to pay only what you can truly afford.
Try To Stay Positive + Realize It Is Not Your Fault
The staggering number at the bottom of your medical bill is not your fault. Yes, the American medical system is a disaster, and in so many ways we are set up to fail, so it’s okay to be angry. But the most important thing to keep in mind is that the treatments and procedures you had done were needed to save your life, or improve your health. The most important thing is your recovery. Once you’re feeling better, try paying your bill down over time, being careful not to put more than 3% to 6% of your total income towards your hospital bills, says Sesso. You’re doing your best, you’re healing, and that’s all that matters.
- HerMoney Podcast: The Doctor Is In: Elisabeth Rosenthal On Managing Your Medical Costs
- New Ways to Lower Your Healthcare Costs in 2021
- Navigating The Healthcare System And Being Your Own Advocate
- What’s New On The Healthcare Exchanges For 2021
SUBSCRIBE: Get behind-the-scenes financial insights from our own Jean Chatzky. Subscribe to HerMoney today.