How to manage your medical bills

At the age of 19, writer Emily Maloney found herself facing approximately $50,000 in medical debt after hospital treatment for a mental health crisis. Debt followed her through her twenties, hurting her credit and leading to stressful calls from collection agencies.

His experience is all too common: the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reports that about 1 in 5 American households has medical debt. People with medical debt are more likely to deal with anxiety, stress or depression and avoid filling prescriptions because of the cost.

The risk of “medical debt looms over every consumer and impacts their lives, says John McNamara, deputy director of consumer credit, payments and deposit markets at CFPB. He adds that recent changes to the way medical debt is reported by credit bureaus should help consumers: paid medical debt will no longer appear on credit reports and no new medical debt will appear for 12 months. (instead of six months). Also, in the first half of next year, credit bureaus will stop reporting unpaid medical debts under $500.

Eventually, Maloney’s debt was resolved through a combination of a helpful customer service representative and exceeding his state’s statute of limitations. She wrote a book, “Cost of Living”, based on her experiences. She wants to assure others facing medical debt that they can take steps to reduce it.

“It takes time, but you can appeal the insurance company’s decision or ask (the provider) for a discount, so it’s worth it,” she says.

In other words, consumers might have more power than they realize. Here are some ways to exercise that power over your medical debt.

READ YOUR INVOICE CAREFULLY

It can be tempting to throw a big dollar in the trash out of frustration. But Dan Weissmann, creator of “An Arm and a Leg,” a podcast on the cost of healthcare, recommends instead checking closely for mistakes made by the healthcare provider or insurance company.

“It’s an unfair amount of homework for us because if you find a mistake you have to complain and invest your time, but some medical bills have mistakes,” he says.

Weissmann says it’s also worth checking your rights under the No Surprises Act, which took effect in January 2022 and protects consumers from certain types of unexpected medical bills.

ASK YOUR PROVIDER FOR ASSISTANCE

Many hospitals offer financial assistance to those who meet the income thresholds. “If you receive an amount you weren’t expecting, call the hospital and say, ‘Am I eligible for a discount? What is your financial aid policy? says Richard Gundling, vice president of the Healthcare Financial Management Association, an association of financial executives in the healthcare industry.

Hospitals often have “charity care” policies to lower the price or even forgive the debt altogether, but consumers may have to be aggressive in asking for them. Eligibility for programs varies by state and hospital, but nonprofit hospitals are required to have financial assistance policies. Hospitals may also offer payment plans, giving you more time to pay.

Hospitals can also connect you with financing options such as personal loans and medical credit cards, which can be helpful but also pose risks. CFPB’s McNamara warns that credit cards, for example, can incur additional interest charges.

BE PERSISTENT AND GET SUPPORT

Lorraine Coughlin, president of LMC Medical Claims Management in West Palm Beach, Florida, helps people settle medical bills with insurance companies for a living. She says the number one strategy is persistence.

“You have to call and ask questions. Don’t just make payments if you get a surprise bill,” she says. Sometimes it can take an hour or more, but making that call can save you thousands of dollars, she says.

Medical billing advocates like Coughlin can do this work for you, but they usually charge a fee and a percentage of any savings. McNamara warns that there are predators out there who claim to be billing or consumer advocates, but in reality, they could be taking your money without providing any real help. He recommends doing research before sharing personal information or paying an upfront fee.

If you’re having trouble getting satisfactory answers from your insurance company and you’re employed, Gundling suggests asking your company’s benefits contact for help. “They can be your advocate,” he says.

PREPARE FOR THE NEXT MEDICAL BILL

The ideal time to work on dealing with medical debt is before you have it, says Gundling. With the rise of high-deductible health insurance plans, even those insured will increasingly face expensive bills, making an emergency fund even more important.

“If you know you have a plan with a large deductible, have the money in the bank,” he says.

You can try saving money through automated deposits into a high-yield savings account or take advantage of a flexible healthcare savings account if your employer offers one.

Likewise, Gundling suggests asking about what your insurance covers and which providers are in-network before seeking care whenever possible.

Ultimately, attacking, not ignoring, medical debt may be your best hope of finally putting it behind you, as Maloney did.

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This column was provided to The Associated Press by personal finance website NerdWallet. Kimberly Palmer is a personal finance expert at NerdWallet and the author of “Smart Mom, Rich Mom.” Email: [email protected] Twitter: @KimberlyPalmer.

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