What Are Your Options If You Can’t Pay Your Medical Bills?

August 10, 2020

Dealing with medical procedures and emergencies can be stressful enough, even before you have to figure out how to pay for them. The fact of the matter is many Americans go into appointments, surgeries, treatments and emergency departments unsure of exactly how much the bill will be when it arrives. As a result, it’s very common for households to struggle to pay those medical expenses.

It may be unsurprising to learn medical issues — the cost of care and/or the resulting missed work — are involved in more than two-thirds of all bankruptcies. This means more bankruptcies are driven by medical issues than mortgage problems, excessive spending, providing funds to friends and family members, student loans or divorce.

If you’re one of the many Americans suffering from sticker shock on healthcare, you may be wondering: What are your options if you can’t afford to pay your medical bills? Here are some avenues to explore if you find yourself in this difficult situation.

Double-Check the Accuracy of the Bills

Instead of accepting the itemized charges at face value, go over them with a fine-toothed comb — keeping an eye out for human error, duplicate charges or any confusing charges. As Investopedia cites, between seven and 90 percent of medical bills may contain errors.

It’s worth picking up the phone and calling both the healthcare provider and your insurance provider to ask questions about any questionable entries, as you may be able to resolve those errors to your own financial benefit.

Try Negotiating to Work Out a Payment Plan

The good news is that the hospital/provider would rather get at least a percentage of the balance from you than have to write it off and sell it to a collections agency. So, you may have some bargaining power in this regard to lower interest, come up with an installment plan or get a cash discount. This is the same principle debt relief programs use when they try to get creditors to accept a lower settlement on behalf of consumers.

According to one mediation expert, it’s worth asking these three questions during negotiations:

  • What financial hardship discounts do you offer?
  • Which of these fees may be waivable? 
  • If your organization has a charity relief plan, can you tell me the details?

Another approach is to ask if the organization could charge you the Medicare rate rather than the commercial insurance rate. You should also be prepared to cite any documented financial hardships you’ve faced recently — like an injury or a disability stopping you from working, a layoff, etc. Moreover, advocates and mediation firms are available If you’re feeling overwhelmed trying to handle negotiations on your own.

You may find the provider is willing to work with you to reach a more amenable agreement than outlined on the original bill when you open the lines of communication.

Use Credit Cards as a Last Resort

Putting medical bills on credit can technically buy you some more time, as charges typically have 30 days before they start accumulating interest — but after that can become very expensive. This is why experts tend to recommend getting on a monthly payment plan through the hospital or doctor’s office, rather than putting the bills on a credit card.

If you are going to do so just the same, looking into getting a medical credit card with a deferred interest period. Be aware you’ll need to pay off the entire balance before the introductory period ends if you want to avoid retroactive interest, though.

Dealing with unaffordable medical bills is a tough situation, but there are a few things you can do to make it easier: check for errors, negotiate and, if you have to use credit, minimize the interest you’ll pay.

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