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If you’re like many people, you have medical debt. In fact, medical debt is a common problem in the U.S., with more than 42.9 million people struggling with unpaid medical bills. It’s no secret; the cost of medical care in the U.S. has increased sharply, with medical premiums rising 5% since 2017 while average weekly earnings have only risen 1.1%.
Unexpected medical debt can happen to anyone. If you’re young, you may think that you don’t have anything to worry about, but this is far from the truth. Young people get sick, and they have accidents. You also may think that you don’t have to worry about high medical bills because you have insurance. Some insurance plans are better than others are, meaning they cover more of the medical costs; however, most plans nowadays have high deductibles that need to be paid first out of pocket before the insurance company begins to pay. Even when insurance does pay, there are caps on how much or which procedures it covers, and caps on what it’ll pay for out-of-network bills.
However, regardless of what you think about the cost of healthcare, if you have medical bills, they’re your responsibility, and you need to pay them. What if you simply can’t pay them; what do you do if they’re just too much?
Don’t Put Them Off
First off, don’t ignore them. Remember, they’re your bills and they aren’t going anywhere. In fact, if you ignore them and they’re sent to a collection agency or are charged off, it can cause severe harm to your credit score and make it more difficult and more expensive to obtain credit in the future. Unpaid medical bills won’t just cause bad credit for a while and then go away, either. Your medical provider can choose to sue you to recoup its money, and the court can force you to pay by garnishing a portion of your wages.
Check for Errors
Check for errors. It happens more than you might think and could end up costing you a lot of money. Items get double-billed, coded incorrectly, and overcharged. Go over every bill carefully and ask the provider’s billing office to explain anything that you find confusing.
The Healthcare Bluebook allows you to compare the price of procedures in your area to see if you were charged a fair price. Since prices can vary greatly, you may be able to negotiate a significantly lower price if you prove you’ve been overcharged.
Ask for a Deal
It doesn’t hurt to ask! Some providers will give you a substantial discount for paying immediately in a lump sum.
Ask for Help
Many medical providers offer some kind of financial assistance, but it varies, and some may require that you first apply for Medicaid. If you’re rejected, the provider will then let you apply for help. Your hospital may have a caseworker who can help you sort out your bill and refer you to local charities, churches, or community organizations that may be able to help. You may qualify for an income-driven hardship plan that allows you to make smaller payments than an installment plan for a longer period.
Get an Advocate
A medical billing advocate is someone typically with a past in the medical or legal fields who will scour your bills to make sure they’re accurate. If he or she finds any discrepancies or errors, you pay that person approximately 30% of the amount you save.
Work Out a Payment Plan
The good news is that you won’t be charged interest on medical bills, nor will you incur late fees. Negotiate a payment plan with the provider that allows you to pay as much as you can, and get the terms in writing. As long as you continue to pay your bill, you won’t face further action.
Get a Personal Loan
If you can’t resolve your payments with the billing department, consider taking out a personal loan to cover the rest. Shop around for the best terms that fit your needs.
Get a 0% Interest Credit Card
If you can’t get help through the doctor’s office or hospital, you may be able to apply for a credit card with an introductory 0% APR. Be cautious, though, as paying with credit cards puts you into the never-ending cycle of revolving debt, so it’s important to pay off the balance before the introductory period ends.
Learn about Debt Settlement
If you can’t work out a payment plan or a loan, debt settlement might be the a good solution. Debt settlement can help to drastically lower you medical debts without the severer repercussions of bankruptcy.
If your bills are sent to a collection agency, don’t ignore them. Offer to pay what you can in exchange for settling the debt in full in the eyes of the collector. This will look much better on your credit report than “settled.” You likely won’t be able to pay the full amount, and collection agencies understand that. It may come back with a counteroffer, or just decide to accept what you offer. These companies purchase debt for pennies on the dollar, so it’s not losing money either way.
You may think that as long as you’re paying something on your bills that they won’t enter collections. This just isn’t true. If you’re not enrolled in a payment plan, your bills can go into collections as soon as you’re late. Even if you’re in a payment agreement, your account can be sent to collections if you’re unable to meet your agreed-upon payment schedule. Always make sure you have your payment agreements in writing.
It’s important that, no matter what your financial circumstance, you continue to see the doctor. One of the worst consequences of the skyrocketing cost of out-of-pocket medical expenses is that more and more people are foregoing medical care that they need because it’s something they can’t afford. Continue to get the care you need to stay healthy.