There are a lot of things we can expect in life, but medical debt is something we all hope to avoid. No one plans for a trip, slip, or to become ill, even with an increased risk related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, studies show that upwards of 79 million Americans have issues with medical debt, so in this case, some preparation in regards to the unexpected might not be amiss.
Medical care is not always affordable, and the problem is that we usually can’t avoid it. We all need to stay healthy, and some appointments, including those with dentists, cannot be missed. If that wasn’t enough, there have been studies that show that low income and minority patients are often more subject to sickness and will have less money to pay for their care.
The point is that a medical bill can be incredibly daunting, and getting out of debt can be a steep hill to climb, but there are steps you can take to make the payments and process more manageable. Here are some tips.
The Importance of Taking Care of Medical Bills
When you get a medical bill in the mail, it can cause instant stress, but it is important that you don’t ignore it and hope that it goes away. If you do not pay your bill or contact the hospital to discuss it, then they will send your debt to a collection agency.
When the collection agency gets your file, the act will be reported to the credit agencies. The longer you wait to talk and make a deal with the collections agency, the more marks you will get on your credit score. After a certain time, your score could dip so low that you will no longer be able to take out loans. As an extreme measure, they may also file to garnish your wages to pay the debt, and it may not be an amount that you can afford.
The debt will never go away, so you must take care of it. The first thing you should do when you get your bill is to look at it with a fine-toothed comb and ensure that all of the charges are accurate. Look for charges for treatments you didn’t receive. So if they bill you for a three-night stay at the hospital, but you were in and out the same day, then you should dispute that charge.
Also, remember that hospital billing departments are not just there to pass out bills, but they are also there to help. If there is a charge that you do not understand, give them a call, and they will explain it.
Learn Your Options
After you have verified that all of the charges on your statement are correct, you need to call the hospital and look into your repayment options. First, find out if the hospital offers payment plans. If so, write down how much you can realistically afford to pay while also having enough money to pay your other bills and keep a roof over your head. Give this number to the billing office and see if they can accommodate.
Next, find out if they offer any form of financial assistance, which may be offered if you meet certain criteria, such as having an income that falls in line with federal poverty guidelines. If you simply do not make enough money to pay this bill and your other necessary utility and housing costs, then you absolutely must ask about these programs with the hospital’s billing office. Note that particular procedures may be excluded, such as cosmetic surgery and some dental care.
Different hospitals may also offer alternative options to pay your bill. Some offer the chance to apply for a medical credit card where you can pay off your debt, often interest-free for a certain amount of time. If they don’t, you can go outside of the organization and apply for a loan that you can use to cover the bill and then pay the loan instead. Research with several companies to find loans with 0% interest, so you aren’t paying more than what you need.
If You Still Can’t Pay the Debt
Some people may try the options above but will still be unable to get the money necessary to pay their debt. In this case, more drastic measures may be necessary. If you meet certain criteria, you may be able to go to an outside organization that can help to pay your bill. There are several organizations you can look into, including The Access Project and the National Jewish Health Financial Assistance program that aims to help disadvantaged patients pay their mounting bills.
When the medical bills become too insurmountable, many people decide to declare bankruptcy to clear out their debt and start fresh. If you are considering this avenue, then you have two types of bankruptcy options, either of which may be better depending on your situation.
The most drastic type of bankruptcy is Chapter 7, which will wipe out all qualifying debts (including medical bills). If you foresee a positive change in your income or if you are just in a tough place right now, then consider Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which wipes away a lot of the debt but allows you to try a five-year repayment plan to pay back what you can.
Keep in mind that declaring bankruptcy might help with your medical debt, but it will raise havoc on your life and your credit report. Both of these forms of bankruptcy will stay on your report for up to 10 years and will limit your opportunities to buy large purchases, like a home or car. When you declare bankruptcy, you also run the risk of losing your house and other costly possessions, so the decision is not one to take lightly.
There’s no way around it. Medical bills are scary. But receiving one doesn’t mean you have to lose everything. Try the steps above and make your medical debt more manageable.
Dan Matthews is a freelance writer with a penchant for financial wisdom and solid research. You can find him on Twitter @danielmatthews0 and LinkedIn.
Josh founded Money Buffalo in 2015 to help people get out of debt and make smart financial decisions. He is currently a full-time personal finance writer with work featured in Forbes Advisor, Fox Business, and Credible.