5 Things to Do When Medical Debt Becomes Overwhelming

A doctor visiting a man at home who has a broken leg resting on the couch.

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Here's what to do if medical bills are weighing you down.

To say that medical debt is a burden on millions of Americans is an understatement. The United States spends $3.8 trillion annually on medical care, and a three-day hospital stay averages around $30,000. According to the American Journal of Medicine, more than half of people who file personal bankruptcy name hospital bills as the primary reason.

So, what are you to do when medical bills threaten to overwhelm you? Here, we offer five steps to take when medical bills get out of control.

1. Review all bills

Let's say you went to the hospital for a broken leg and were released from the emergency room after a few hours. Your medical bills should indicate that. If you review your statement and see that the hospital charged for an overnight stay or services you never received, you know there's a mistake. Inform the hospital billing department, and if you're insured, also notify your insurance company.

Medical bills are boring to read and confusing to understand. If you have any questions, check with the billing department. It's your money, and you deserve to know what you are expected to pay.

2. Contact your medical provider

Call your medical provider's office -- whether that's a doctor's office or hospital -- and ask if you qualify for financial assistance. Most hospitals have a department dedicated to helping those who are unable to pay their medical bills. If you are low-income, check to see if your hospital is a nonprofit. According to federal law, nonprofit hospitals must provide qualified low-income patients with free or discounted care.

If you earn too much to qualify, now is the time to be bold. Explain that you have a bill you can't afford to pay and request either a reduction in the amount owed or debt forgiveness. Do not assume that the sticker price is set in stone. It is possible that the medical provider would rather receive some payment than no payment at all. It's also possible that they have a fund that can help cover your bill or direct you to an organization that helps cover medical costs.

3. Create a budget

If you don't already have a monthly budget in place, create one. Make sure your budget clearly shows your monthly income and all financial obligations. If you find that you have a little extra left after all other bills are paid, you have a sense of how much you can afford to pay toward medical expenses.

4. Keep up with your other bills

No matter how much pressure you feel to pay a medical debt, continue to pay your rent or mortgage, credit card bills, auto loan, personal loan, and any other fixed expenses. These financial obligations are reported to the credit bureaus, and missed payments will harm your credit score.

By law, credit bureaus cannot record negative information regarding medical bills until those bills are at least six months past due. In theory, this gives patients time to negotiate with their medical providers and insurance company. Ideally, you will have a deal worked out with your medical provider before that time.

5. Work with a credit counselor

If it all feels too big to handle alone, a trained credit counselor can negotiate with your medical provider on your behalf. One way to locate a credible counseling service is by contacting the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. This organization has nearly 70 years of experience directing consumers toward nonprofit agencies that will step in, offer advice, and help you see past your debt.

The U.S. is the only major industrialized nation that does not provide healthcare to its citizens. Until the day that policy changes, we are each responsible for protecting our health and finances. The best way to do that is to know where to find help.

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