Dealing with Medical Bills
Anyone reading this has probably at some point dealt with a medical bill, or perhaps many medical bills. They come in all shapes and sizes – from the $10 physician visit copay to the $500 dental procedure that fell in the “gap” between your dental and medical policies to the $2,000 ER bill that you incurred while uninsured. When the medical bill just one of many in a stack of obligations you have to creditors, and you’re trying to be the best possible steward of your money, how do you handle it?
On one hand, the case can be made that in the big picture this bill is incredibly important to pay promptly and in full. The money that goes to healthcare providers helps to bring necessary medical services to your community. In the case of hospitals, most of them are not-for-profit entities that provide healthcare to all and provide facilities like an ER to the community.
On the other hand, you probably didn’t choose to get sick, have a toothache, or crash your bike resulting in a prompt visit to the doctor. The prices of medical care, in addition, must be inflated based on the charges for routine services. Plus, that surgeon who you know appears to be doing just fine for himself, so he can wait for the money, right?
No doubt, medical bills are a bit of a different animal from other common bills because of the ethical considerations and short-notice nature of the expenses, but they are still a debt to a provider of a service whom you gave your word to pay back. Now that you have a bill, here are a few things can soften the blow of getting one or more bills from a hospital, doctor, clinic, or other medical providers.
Discuss the Charges Up Front – One of the most effective ways to not have sticker shock on a medical bill is to discuss the charges with your provider beforehand. If the service you are going in for is routine, you may find that you can negotiate a discount of 20% or more off the charges, particularly if you are truly willing to shop around (if so, be sure that you’re asking the right questions). The provider may ask that in return for the discount you pay up-front, so be prepared for that.
Review your Explanation of Benefits - The payment adjudication process in healthcare is ripe for errors. Reading the EOB that you receive from your insurance company and comparing it with your medical bill can yield surprising results. There are several points in the medical billing process when a key error can occur creating a higher bill for you than you deserve. The provider may record the wrong insurance for your visit, the visit may be errantly recorded in their system, or the insurer may interpret the claim incorrectly. All can result in an inaccurate medical bill.
Sit down with the EOB and the medical bill, and only when you are satisfied that the correct patient balance made it through to you should you pay off the balance.
Discuss Payment Plans – If you just received a medical bill that you can’t pay, don’t worry. Most providers are willing to set up a payment plan that will fit your budget. They don’t want to send you to collections – that is costly for them and the chances of any payment decreases. They would rather put you on a payment schedule that works for them and for you. Pick up the phone and call.
If Worse Comes to Worse, Ask for Help – If you are able to take care of yourself, then take care of yourself. If you’ve hit a financial tough streak, however, you may find that a healthcare provider will heavily discount or even forgive your balance if you qualify for a Financial Assistance program. This is more common with not-for-profit providers. In order to qualify, you’ll need to demonstrate low assets and income and cooperate with the process. Providers are used to people trying to game the system when it comes to Financial Assistance – be straightforward and honest, and they might be willing and able to help.
One of the frustrating things about medical bills it is difficult to budget for them (especially the emergent care kind) and the dollar amount can hurt. Being proactive and direct with your healthcare providers can help a medical bill fit a bit more neatly into your monthly budget.