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Unbearable Medical Bills: What You Can Do To Get Help Paying

The last thing most people get after a frightening or painful medical procedure is an equally terrifying medical bill. Writes about it USNews.

Photo: Shutterstock

“The impact of unexpectedly high health care bills can be truly devastating and stressful,” says Maureen Lamb, CEO and founder of Medical Bill Support, which works with health care consumers to reduce health care costs. This stress is compounded by the confusion surrounding billing for coronavirus tests, she said.

About a quarter of U.S. adults say they or their family members have had trouble paying their medical bills in the past year, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation published in June 2019. With people sick and unemployed during a pandemic, fears about medical costs are likely to remain high in 2020.

Here's what you need to know if you can't pay your medical bills:

  • Find out what happens if you don't pay the bill.
  • Check your medical bills for errors.
  • Discuss your situation with a professional.
  • Get help paying your medical bills.
  • Consider going into bankruptcy for your medical bills.
  • Learn about medical debt cancellation during the coronavirus pandemic.
Find out what happens if you don't pay the bill

After a period of non-payment, the hospital or healthcare facility will likely sell the unpaid medical bills to a collection agency that is working to recoup their investment in your debt. The time it takes for a debt to go into collection may vary depending on the provider, location, or service received. But once the debt is in collection, collection agents will start calling, texting, and texting asking for payment. Having an unpaid bill also lowers your credit score as the foreclosure lists remain on your FICO credit report for seven years.

Experts say it's impossible to make medical debts and hospital bills disappear by ignoring them. “The biggest risk of ignoring debt is that a creditor or collector will sue you,” said Amy Loftsgordon, editor of collection, collection and debt management at Nolo. "If you then ignore the claim, the court is likely to give the creditor a default judgment, which is an automatic win for the collectors."

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While collecting medical bills is a bad idea, keep your rights in mind when dealing with debt collectors. They cannot bother you, lie to you, threaten with arrest or deportation, or call you in the middle of the night. You can take the time to confirm that the debt is yours and try to negotiate with the collection agencies an affordable repayment plan or even a reduction in the amount owed.

Check your medical bills for errors

Please confirm that the hospital bill you received is correct. You have the right to request a detailed report and review it for unnecessary expenses such as double billing and unforeseen medical expenses. To avoid having your debt enforced, ask the healthcare provider to suspend your account for 30 days while you check your account and make the necessary calls. For example, if you are negotiating with your insurer, Lamb suggests explaining: “I am waiting for information from the insurance company. I have an appeal because of an unpaid bill, could you work with me, I don't want the bill to go to the collectors. "

If you think your insurance company has not covered what it should have covered, call them. Compare your itemized bill with the explanation on your benefit application and make sure everything is paid as it should.

If you still have questions, compare the bill to your medical records to make sure that the services you received match what is shown in the table.

Report any errors or inconsistencies to your health care provider or insurer so they can remove them and reduce your medical bill. Medical billing errors are surprisingly common. Errors can include double billing, where the patient is charged more than once for the same service, as well as charges for items such as regular consumables that should not be billed. Hiring a patient advocate can also help you with this process.

Discuss medical bills

Call your health insurance or debt collection service. Talk to the hospital staff - or arrange with a collector - to review your options and make payments affordable. Explain the situation and try to ask for a break. Consider asking for a no-interest payment plan, Lamb says. “I always recommend negotiating something,” says Lamb. You can also get a discount if you offer to pay in cash.

Ask if you can pay for the service at an insurance rate. If your procedure was not covered for any reason, ask your provider if you can pay for it at an insurance rate that may be lower than what the provider charges individual patients.

Take notes. When speaking with billing or debt collection representatives over the phone, note the date, time, name of the representative, and telephone number. “Be polite and treat your support representatives with respect,” says Lamb. "They are more likely to work with you if you don't yell at them."

Get help paying your medical bills

Federal law requires nonprofit hospitals to provide financial assistance to low-income patients who cannot pay their medical bills, so check if the hospital treating you is a nonprofit. Applicants will need to provide proof that their income is low enough to qualify, such as pay stubs, tax returns and other financial documents. “If they meet the requirements, patients will have a reduced or completely written off bill,” says Lamb.

Even if a hospital operates as a for-profit institution, it may offer one of these programs voluntarily or be required to provide financial assistance under state law, so it's worth checking out, says April Kühnhoff, a staff attorney for the National Consumer Advocacy Center.

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It's also worth asking for financial help, even if you suspect you might not be approved, experts say. These plans often operate on a sliding scale, so you can still get 20% off or more.

Consider filing for bankruptcy for medical bills

Medical debt can be repaid in the event of bankruptcy, but experts warn that medical bankruptcy should not be taken lightly as it will worsen your credit rating and make it difficult to obtain loans in the future. Bankruptcies will remain on your FICO credit report for up to ten years. According to Loftsgordon, "If you need help assessing the pros and cons of trying to pay off debts and filing for bankruptcy, it would be a good idea to talk to a bankruptcy attorney."

Cancellation of medical debt during a pandemic

To cope with the financial and medical emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government and several states have taken steps to strengthen health insurance and protect residents from aggressive debt collection measures.

One example is Colorado, where state politicians have suspended the initiation of "emergency" collection actions, such as withholding wages or seizing accounts, Loftsgordon said.

If you are eligible for Medicaid, which provides health coverage for people with low income, check your state's rules for coverage for the previous 90 days. Some states, such as Massachusetts, have made it more accessible during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bosco said. This can help you get coverage for a medical bill you got in the previous three months.

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