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What Can I Do If I Can't Pay My Medical Bills?


They don’t call them emergencies for nothing.


But even if you have a health concern that’s not a crisis, medical treatment can still rack up bills at an incredible rate. What options are there if you find yourself unable to pay for medical care costs?


As with all debt, take a deep breath and a step back to assess your situation.


Ten years ago, a study conducted by the Department of Medicine at Harvard Medical School found that 62% of all bankruptcies were linked in some way to medical expenses. This was despite the fact that many people actually had some form of health insurance. While the current number is hotly debated, medical bankruptcies continue to grow thanks in part to the high cost of medical treatment and increasingly high deductibles.


The 411 on 911 medical bills

Whether it’s an emergency or ongoing care, the first thing you should do if your medical bills keep mounting is to speak with your healthcare provider (doctor, hospital, treatment center, etc.). Trust us, it won’t be the first time they’ve been asked what options are available to make paying back medical debt more manageable. In fact, today it is not unusual for providers to offer some type of payment plan if you are unable to pay the entire bill up front. Many providers are willing to work out a fee schedule to ensure they recoup at least some of the money they are owed. If you go this route, be sure to keep a record of every payment you make, including check numbers, receipts, and dates of payment.


Remember, too, negotiation can be a key factor in settling and/or reducing medical debt especially if you’re having problems paying in full. Be sure to take these steps before your account is delinquent or in collections. In addition to the payment plan mentioned above, other suggested tactics include:

  • Asking for a discount
  • Utilizing Medicaid if your income is low enough or bills are high enough
  • Applying for financial aid through the health care facility (charity care programs)
  • State and local government assistance programs
  • State children’s health insurance plans (for lower-income families)


Another key step is to closely examine any bills you receive. This may seem surprising, and even daunting given the complex nature of medical billing, but the U.S. General Accountability Office has estimated that a large majority of all hospital bills (and even doctor bills) contain overcharges. Given the extraordinary rates that can be charged during a hospital visit, even determining one or two errors can save big dollars.


However, if the concept of reviewing medical bills leaves you breathless, you might consider contracting with a medical billing advocate. Many work on a contingency basis meaning you don’t pay unless they negotiate a discount for you. Typical reimbursement ranges from 15 – 35% of the errors found.


Innovative software options On his website, consumer advocate Clark Howard suggests a free software package called Remedy designed to detect mistakes in hospital bills. It works directly with doctors to fix errors, and any mistakes the software finds earns the company a 20% commission while you get 80% of the savings.


By the way, if you don’t receive an itemized bill from your provider, request one. Reviewing it line by line will enable you to spot duplicate charges or unreasonably high ones. Write down any questions you have, call the billing office and have them explain any medical phrasing or codes you don’t understand.


The point to keep in mind is that if you incurred the debt, you owe it. And if it goes into delinquency and/or collections, it will negatively impact your credit score. Should mounting medical debt get so bad that you are considering bankruptcy, be sure to consult an attorney specializing in bankruptcy law before taking this step.


Given the chaos surrounding medical billing, you might even be dinged for incorrect non-payments you know nothing about. With that in mind, and especially if you are looking to apply for new lines of credit such as a mortgage, you should always review your credit reports from Experian, Transunion and Equifax once a year to look for anything out of the ordinary.