How to Ease the Burden of Medical Debt

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If you’re facing big bills from a medical emergency, you probably have many questions: Where do I start? What am I supposed to do? How do I pay this? What about my other debts?

But we have good news: You can take steps to make the debt-paying process—and possibly the debt itself—less overwhelming.

The first thing to do, as tough as it sounds, is take a deep breath and stay calm. When you aren’t panicking, it’s easier to sort through the medical mess. Deal with one issue at a time. Once you’ve collected your thoughts, you can focus on taking care of the debt. So let’s get started.

Be on Top of Billing

When you receive an invoice, check it for any overcharges or fees for services you didn’t use.  For example, you may have been released from the hospital in the morning but were billed a full day’s rate for your room. Or you might have been charged for hospital medication even though you didn’t receive any. You should also check to make sure you didn’t get double-billed for something—which is common with so much paperwork.

Make a list of any questionable items on the bill so you can discuss them with the hospital. If there is anything you don’t understand, call the hospital billing office to get an explanation.

Organize the bills by date instead of just throwing them in a pile. It will give you a feeling of power and control to know exactly where each piece of information is—and it certainly beats digging through a heap of mail to find what you’re looking for.

Read Your Insurance Policy

You may be able to get reimbursed for certain medical expenses. How? The hospital and your insurance provider may have missed some charges your policy covers. Compare the codes on your hospital invoice with your insurer’s “explanation of benefits” material to see if there are any charges you aren’t liable for. If there is a charge your health care provider should pay, call the hospital and your insurance carrier so they can adjust your bill. Don’t wait to file an appeal. Many insurers limit the time you have to question a benefit—usually 30 to 60 days.

You’ll need patience during the appeal process. It’s no secret that insurance companies can give you the runaround when you question your bill. Be prepared to hear the word “denial” and fight it. Write down the names and phone numbers of people you talk to along with the times you call them. That not only helps you in conversations with the insurance company, but good records give you something to lean on if you file a formal complaint with your state’s insurance commission.

Work Out a Deal

If you can’t fully pay your debt, go to the hospital administrator with your hat in your hand. Don’t have any sense of entitlement, because you are asking for mercy. Explain your situation to them in person, showing your income and what you can realistically pay. Tell them how grateful you are for the service they provided. Then ask if they are willing to settle for a lower amount or work out a payment schedule.

You aren’t trying to get out of paying. You are just asking if they will accept less money based on what you can afford to pay. Administrators can be pretty understanding and compassionate when you are thankful, honest and realistic about your situation.

If you negotiate a payment plan, make the medical payment a priority in your budget after you take care of the Four Walls (food, shelter and utilities, clothing, and transportation). The deal you work out with the hospital is more important than any car payment or credit card bill. In fact, the only two types of debt that come close to a hospital payment arrangement are IRS debt and federal student loans.

If you owe money to the IRS, that payment should always come right after you pay your Four Walls. Student loans must be taken care of, but there are options in that area which you can explore. Other than those two, nothing trumps a payment on a deal you work out with the hospital.

One Step at a Time

These steps can help ease the burden of dealing with medical debt. Remember, though, to do things one step at a time, especially if you are regaining your health. Take the process slowly. You have been through a lot, but remember this: There is only one thing tougher than big medical bills.

And that’s you.