Americans carry a collective $1 trillion in credit card debt. Only a small group of the population has enough savings to cover a $1,000 emergency. No savings and soaring credit card balances make debt seem like a problem that solely stems from bad choices.
But what about medical debt? Getting medical treatment or undergoing a necessary surgery are hardly bad choices. And it’s not an insurance thing. According to a 2007 study by the American Journal of Medicine, 80 percent of medical bankruptcies were declared by those with insurance.
It’s difficult to point to specific current numbers to illustrate the medical debt crisis in this country, but at the least, hundreds of thousands of Americans have declared bankruptcy in the last few years because of their medical debt. Countless more have struggled with collections and the onslaught of negative emotions that accompany the process.
To reduce your chances of becoming another medical bankruptcy statistic, let’s look at how to handle medical debt.
Don’t Let Bills Fester
Ignoring any kind of bill is usually a recipe for disaster. You might be able to let your bills pile up for a few months, but eventually, your medical provider will send the debt to a collection agency. A debt in collection impacts your credit score and results in unwanted calls from collections agents. It can even bring a lawsuit and some type of wage garnishment.
Check That It’s a Bill (Without Mistakes)
The medical billing field is non-stop, complex. The pricing structure is also anything but straightforward. Because of this, mistakes get made all the time. Keeping a close eye on your bill and the benefits (if you have insurance) that you’re entitled to will protect you from accepting a billing mistake. It’s also important to make sure you’re staring at an actual bill and not an explanation of benefits (EOB). Even though an EOB is the precursor to an eventual bill, they are preliminary and might not include medical provider costs or further adjustments on the insurer’s part.
Negotiate Your Bill
As noted above, the medical billing industry is complex. It’s very common for insurance providers to make mistakes on bills. If your attempts to highlight billing mistakes have been met with resistance, try to negotiate your bill. Don’t negotiate just to get a better price, but if your charges seem unjust, stating your case can be effective. If the bill is beyond your means but is legitimate, you can still try negotiating by explaining your financial situation. And if you’re not confident in your persuasion tactics, professional companies can try to settle your medical debt on your behalf. To find a provider, search consumer review forums like the Better Business Bureau and Consumer Affairs. Here’s an example of the latter, showing Freedom Debt Relief reviews.
Keep Your Doctor’s Office and Insurer in the Loop
If you’re in the process of negotiating a bill with your insurer, be sure to communicate it with your medical provider. If they don’t know you’re contesting a bill, they could send your debt to a collection agency. If you tried to fight the bill, but the charges have been upheld as legitimate, talk to your provider about a repayment plan. At the end of the day, they want to get paid, so they’ll likely work with you.
See What Assistance and Programs Are Available to You
If your income isn’t enough to cover your medical expenses, you could be eligible for Medicaid. And Medicaid can actually be applied to medical costs you’ve already incurred, but only within a set timeframe, so being proactiveness is essential. If you’re uninsured, that alone could net you a significant reduction on your bill. Another option is a zero percent interest repayment plan, commonly offered by hospitals. You might qualify for other medical benefit options as well depending on the area in which you live. It’s always best to explore all your options.
Try to Pay It with a Credit Card
If you don’t have credit card debt and are staring at a legitimate medical bill you can’t afford, consider paying it with a credit card. You’ll want a relatively low interest rate and, ideally, one with a no-interest payment period. Weigh the best personal credit card you can get against the options your medical provider or medical credit cards to get the best option.
Seek Debt Relief or Bankruptcy
If your medical debt is far more than you can afford, and you’ve done all you can in trying to reduce the cost, your best options may debt relief (debt settlement) or bankruptcy.
Dealing with medical debt can be frustrating. When it’s not our poor choices that leave us financially crippled, it’s easy to feel powerless. By being proactive and considering each of the above steps, you can hopefully solve your medical debt without having to deal with a collection agency or a wrecked credit score.