How you can take some of the “ouch” out of your medical bills

Hit with huge bills after an injury or illness? These strategies can help reduce your medical costs.

For many of us, coping with the costs of a medical crisis adds emotional anguish during an emotionally taxing time. You may still be recovering or helping a family member recuperate when the healthcare bills start rolling in, making it difficult to focus on the task of sorting through and paying bills.

The numbers can be startling. A 2018 Consumer Reports poll found that insured Americans who received a surprise bill paid a median of $784 out of pocket, while 30 percent paid $1,000 or more and 9 percent were liable for more than $5,000.

As unsettling as numbers like that can be, it’s important to keep in mind that there are ways to bring those balance due amounts down. Here are six steps you can take when unexpected bills hit.

Study your statements

Medical bills can be complicated. “And about 80% of them [insurance agencies] overcharge,” estimates Adria Gross, founder of MedWise Insurance Advocacy, one of many companies that help patients reduce medical bills for a fee. “They may list the wrong procedure or diagnosis, bill you twice for the same procedure or lab test, or make mistakes on the charges,” says Gross.

Wrongly charged? Appeal your medical bill

If the bill is due to denial of coverage by your insurer, you and your doctor may have to join forces to appeal that decision, with your physician submitting documentation on why you needed the treatment. For duplicate charges and other errors on your bill, appeal directly to your insurer to fix them.

Be prepared to negotiate

If you’re stuck with a big bill, don’t give up. There are ways to negotiate. With out-of-network bills, you can appeal directly to your insurance company or the healthcare provider and ask them to waive or reduce charges.

If you’re uninsured or meet income requirements, you may also qualify for a bill reduction. “Nonprofit hospitals are required to have financial assistance programs for patients who qualify based on income. Financial assistance can range from offering very deep discounts all the way to writing off a bill,” says Richard Gundling, senior vice president of healthcare financial practices for the Healthcare Financial Management Association.

Ask for advocacy

You can also request help from the state insurance commission or the consumer protection bureau in your state attorney general’s office.

“Many states have healthcare ombudsmen or consumer assistance programs that will negotiate on behalf of the consumer,” says Cheryl Fish-Parcham, director of access initiatives for Families USA#. If you’re employed, your company’s human resources department or the U.S. Department of Labor may also be able to help§.

Request a payment plan

Hospitals often have payment plans available for patients unable to pay in full. But make sure the payment plan is one you can afford.

“If you can’t keep up with the monthly payments, your debt may be sent to collections or you can have your wages garnished,” says Chuck Bell, program director for advocacy at Consumers Union§.

Communicate with creditors immediately

Throughout the negotiation process, which may be long, don’t panic or hide from creditors, advises Caitlin Donovan, director of outreach and public affairs for the National Patient Advocate Foundation††.

“If you are contacted by a collection agency, let them know immediately that you’re disputing a bill; a collection agency can’t contact you again until they verify that the bill is a valid debt.”

Have you or a family member experienced a recent health crisis?

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Consumer Reports, “Surprise Medical Bills Survey,” August 2018.

Adria Gross, MedWise Insurance Advocacy, interview, March 2019.

Rich Gundling, Healthcare Financial Management Association, interview, March 2019.

# Cheryl Fish-Parcham, Families USA, interview, March 2019.

§ Chuck Bell, Consumers Union, interview, March 2019.

†† Interview with Caitlin Donovan.

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