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How to Handle a Medical Bill You Can’t Afford

By Brian Acton

Healthcare costs can quickly spiral out of control for people who had the simple misfortune of being sick or injured. If you can’t afford a large medical bill, you may be worried about the consequences of non-payment, which could involve a damaged credit score, calls from collections agencies, and even court. Luckily, you can try to negotiate your medical bills or get assistance to reduce the cost of your health care. Here’s what to do if you receive a medical bill you can’t afford. Start Planning Immediately One of the worst things you can do is ignore the problem or postpone dealing with it. Any attempt to reduce your medical bill will have a better chance of success if you begin right away. Medical bills have a waiting period of 180 days past due before they can be reported to credit bureaus and land on your credit report. This means you have some time to deal with the bill, but you’ll likely want to get started now because the process can take a while. Collect and Review Your Documents Medical bills often contain errors that overcharge you for medical procedures and supplies; In fact, one recent review by insurance companies found errors in over 90 percent of the bills they examined.  Unfortunately, your insurance companies and medical providers won’t hunt for mistakes, and the burden to find them falls on you. You’ll need to collect every document related to your medical treatment – including the itemized bill, insurance statements, and any other relevant information. If you don’t have itemized bills, you should request them from your health care provider. Then, you can review your itemized bill to make sure you aren’t being overcharged. You can also check your bills against your insurance plan to make sure your insurance covered all the services it was supposed to. This can be a daunting, complicated task, so you may wish to contact a medical billing advocate for help. Negotiate with the Health Care Provider Health care providers will often negotiate with patients who are unable to afford their bill - after all, they’d rather receive some payment than nothing. To negotiate, you’ll need to speak with the health care provider’s billing staff. Negotiation may take some persistence. If you’re having no luck through phone or email, you can send a formal request for negotiation through the mail (make sure to send copies to the health care provider’s management). If you can find lower prices for the services you received, you may want to use that information for leverage. Find Assistance If you’re in certain income brackets or your medical bill is causing financial hardship, you may be able to receive assistance from different sources. Many doctors, hospitals, and specialists have assistance programs or can recommend other resources. If your healthcare provider doesn’t offer aid, there are many government programs and charities that can help. You’ll have to do some research on available local, state, and federal resources. Negotiate with Collections If your medical bill becomes 180 days past due, it may land on your credit report and be sent to collections. This scenario should be avoided, because your credit will be affected. However, if you find yourself in this situation, you still may be able to negotiate. Most collections agencies have bought your debt at pennies on the dollar, so you may be able to negotiate a lower payment amount. If you go this route, try to negotiate an agreement (in writing) that removes the debt from your credit report as a condition of your payment.
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