Medical bills are the most common cause of bankruptcy in the United States, and unfortunately, they're not always avoidable. Health insurance rarely covers the full cost of your medical procedures, and even the deductibles can be challenging to meet if your budget is tight.
It's an overwhelming situation that most people don't know how to handle. Some choose to ignore the bills, while others charge it to their credit cards just to get the hospital off their backs. But neither of these approaches works very well, and they could end up damaging your credit or making your debt problem worse.
Here are a few practical steps you can try instead to lower your costs and come to a resolution that makes both you and the hospital happy.
Make sure the charges are accurate
It's a good practice to look over any bill you receive to ensure that the charges are accurate, and medical bills are no exception. Look for errors like double charges for the same procedure or charges for procedures you didn't receive. Contact the hospital billing department if there's anything you don't understand and speak to your insurance provider about anything you feel should have been covered under your policy.
If you're not sure whether something should normally be covered by insurance or not, reach out to someone who does know. If you get insurance through your employer, your benefits administrator may be able to help. The hospital may also be willing to advocate on your behalf -- for example, by explaining to your insurance company why a procedure was medically necessary. However, you may need to ask for this kind of assistance.
If you find any erroneous charges, point them out to the hospital's billing department and request that they fix the mistakes and provide you with an accurate bill. If for some reason the hospital refuses to do so, it's a good idea to file an appeal with your insurance company. It doesn't want to pay out more than is necessary for your procedures, so it may be willing to negotiate with the hospital for you to get your -- and its -- costs down.
You can also try reaching out to your medical provider's patient advocate, if there is one. They work with you and the hospital to come to a mutually beneficial agreement, and they may be able to get you discounts.
Many people don't realize it, but medical bills can be negotiated. A good first step is to do your research and figure out how much the medical treatment you need usually costs. Healthcare Bluebook can help you determine a fair price for services. Your health insurance provider may also have a similar tool that estimates how much procedures cost. Compare these prices to your bill to determine if you have been charged unfairly. You may also be able to use this information to negotiate with doctors and hospital billing staff before you even receive treatment in some cases.
Armed with this information, speak to your hospital's billing manager about the situation and request that they offer you a fairer rate. They are under no obligation to comply, but oftentimes they will, especially if you can pay the negotiated price in full. Many hospitals would rather accept a large sum now -- even if it's not the full payment -- than get smaller payments over a period of several years, particularly if there's a risk that you could file for bankruptcy.
Even if your hospital has charged a fair price for its services, you may still be able to negotiate a better deal if you promise to pay the full balance within a set period of time or to make a large down payment upfront. If you are going to try negotiating, the best time to do it is right away. Don't way until you have collections agencies calling you for the money. Remember to be firm, but polite. Hospitals are less likely to accommodate you if you come off as hostile and demanding.
See if you qualify for assistance
Some hospitals offer assistance programs to help low-income households pay off their medical bills. If you fall into this category, ask your hospital's billing department to see if you qualify for help with your medical bills.
You may also be eligible for Medicaid, though the exact criteria necessary for approval vary from state to state. If you do qualify, you should apply as soon as possible. Medicaid will often help you pay off any outstanding bills in your name, even if the charges are from before you signed up.
Work out a payment plan
If all else fails, talk to the hospital about setting up an interest-free payment plan. That way, you can pay your bills off over time at a manageable pace. Make sure you get a copy of the agreement in writing so you can refer back to it later. Again, the best time to do this is as soon as you get the bill. Hospitals may be more reluctant to work with you if you've ignored the bill until your account is on the brink of collections.
Medical debt can be overwhelming, but you can make it a lot more manageable by doing a little research and creating a plan for paying back what you owe. The sooner you get started, the easier it will be.
The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.