What to Do When You Can’t Pay Medical Bills

What to Do When You Can

When it comes to medical bills, America is at an impasse. More and more families with high deductible health plans can’t afford to pay bills upfront. But doctors’ offices and hospitals can’t run efficiently when dealing with months-late medical bill payments.

This means that more medical care providers are shoving medical debts to collections agencies more quickly than ever. Of course, this poses a big problem for consumers. Medical debts don’t typically tip the radar on your credit report, simply because they aren’t reported to the credit bureaus. But if that medical bill goes to collections, you can bet it will impact your credit score in a big way.

So the next time you receive a medical bill you can’t pay – or you can’t afford to pay for a service upfront like your medical provider prefers – take these steps:

1. Don’t ignore it.

Like any bill, a medical bill ignored is a medical bill gone bad. Once that bill goes to collections, you lose some of your bargaining power. Plus, any collections account – even for a relatively small amount – wrecks your credit score.

2. Read the details.

When you get a medical bill, be sure to look it over carefully, especially if it’s for something complicated like a procedure involving a hospital stay. If need be, ask for an itemized bill so you can see exactly what your money is going toward.

Plus, you should always check medical bills for errors, double billing, medications you didn’t receive and the wrong room rates. These errors happen more often than you think and can add up to extra money tacked on to your bill.

3. Negotiate.

Yes, you can negotiate with your medical provider, especially if you don’t have insurance. Self-pay patients are often charged a much higher rate than insured patients. This is because insurance agencies use their massive weight with medical providers to negotiate for better pricing.

You, too, can ask for lower rates on your medical procedures. Just speak up.

4. Talk to the billing department.

Most doctors don’t want to send their patients’ bills to collections; they’re just running a business. So don’t assume your medical provider won’t work with you at all. Often, hospitals and doctors’ offices have protocol in place to set up payment plans so patients can pay their bills without going through collections.

If you know you have a big bill coming up, or if you just got an unexpectedly large bill in the mail, talk to the billing department. Tell them what you can afford to pay on a monthly basis, and see how they can work with you.

5. Ask about assistance.

If you’re living at or below the poverty line, ask your doctor’s office or hospital about assistance programs. Many local and national charities offer medical billing assistance, and the medical providers themselves may waive part or all of your fees if you’re in dire straits financially.

And if you’re within the eligible income range for Medicaid, apply as soon as possible. Often, government-funded programs will back pay outstanding medical bills once you’re signed up.

6. Negotiate again.

If you can’t avoid a medical bill being sent to collections, wait, and then negotiate with the collections agency. As with other unsecured debt, medical debt can be discharged for pennies on the dollar. If you absolutely can’t pay off the debt, just continue to reiterate to the collector that you can pay $X, even if that’s only a percentage of the outstanding debt.

Unpaid medical bills are a huge problem for many Americans, so you’re not alone. In fact, medical bills are the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States today. But don’t jump to Chapter 13 as your only option when you get hit with an insurmountable medical bill. Take these other steps first, and then carefully consider your options before filing for bankruptcy.

Read full story at U.S. News & World Report (blog)

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