Medical costs in today’s day and age can be overwhelming. The financial burden can cause some people to make unwise financial decisions, while causing others to stop seeking treatment altogether because of a lack of funds. As a nurse, I have seen some patients mortgage houses to pay off medical bills. I have seen other patients lose houses and cars because of the continual financial drain. It’s quite possible to lose everything due to the financial burden of medical care, but it doesn’t have to happen that way. It is possible to make it through the maze of medical costs without sacrificing everything that you hold dear. After years of accumulating medical expenses as a patient myself, I have learned many things about paying for these expenses, which you may find helpful, too.
Following are a few ideas to help you if you find yourself with mounting stacks of medical bills on your counter:
1. Check your medical bills to ensure you are not being charged for unnecessary costs. Hospitals and clinics bill insurance (and you) based on a diagnosis code or procedure code. This means that they bill for an estimated cost of the entire procedure rather than the actual procedural costs itself, including the cost of paying medical professionals, use of facility equipment, and the number of supplies used during a procedure. It is possible that you are being charged for items or services that you don’t actually need so ask for itemized statements when necessary. If you were billed for a particular item or service that you did not use, it can be removed from the bill, or the amount can be refunded to you if payment was already received.
2. When you are sick and having to go to numerous providers as well as experiencing numerous hospital stays, the piles of medical bills can be enormous. You will get one from every doctor and service provider, as well as from every laboratory and radiological facility you used. You will also usually be billed separately for emergency physicians and anesthesiologists. It’s overwhelming, to say the least. Usually, if you initiate contact with the business office, most hospitals are very willing to work with you, offer financial aid, and set up a payment plan with payments that are within your means. Don’t wait until bills are past due to do this. Explain your financial situation to them, including your income and the number of medical bills you have incurred. Ask if you qualify for financial assistance, which will enable you to pay less for each bill. Being proactive with medical bills will always work to your advantage.
3. One thing you may not know is that medical bills may have different account numbers for every clinic visit and every hospital visit. It is usually possible to combine those account numbers so that you will only have one clinic bill payment and one hospital bill payment, but you will probably need to ask the business office to do this for you. The benefit of this is that you will have one hospital/clinic payment rather than five payments going to five different account numbers at the same hospital/clinic. You will usually need to deal with the hospital business office and the clinic business office separately.
4. When setting up a payment plan for large medical bills, it is usually best to go down to the business office to discuss this in person. I have known patients who have reduced their payments significantly just by being there in person. You may only find out during a face-to-face discussion that you are eligible for discounts based on your income or lack thereof. It may be difficult for you to get down to the business office, but it will most likely work to your benefit to do so. Always tell the business office personnel if you are “self-pay”; (meaning, you don’t have insurance) or are on disability, because you may be eligible for greater discounts on medical care.
5. Don’t take out a loan or second mortgage to pay off medical bills. Most hospitals and health systems will work with you to pay for your healthcare costs. Most banks do not. You don’t want to lose your home in order to pay off medical bills, the payments of which could be reduced with a simple visit to the business office. Remember that if you still owe money to the bank for your home, including a second mortgage or line of credit, the bank owns your home and can repossess it at any time if the payments should stop. If you must, consider refinancing your home instead so that your monthly mortgage payment is less. This may then enable you to contribute more towards your medical bills.
6. Take advantage of local credit counseling services. These types of services are often free and can be very beneficial in helping you to set financial goals, plan a working budget, and pay off debt, including medical debt. Sometimes, the credit counselor will arrange to receive one payment from you and then pay individual bills for you. While this may seem humiliating, it can also greatly reduce your stress. The agency can help you figure out how to set up a cash-only system, whereby you pay for groceries, gas, and other living expenses using cash only. This type of system enables and encourages you to stop using credit/debit cards to pay for expenses. Using a system of envelopes designated for Food, Gas, Personal Needs, Entertainment, etc. (in which you put cash after you get paid) provides the benefit of helping you see exactly how much money you have left for each category each month. Over time, as you learn to stay within your budget and pay your bills, your credit will be re-established as well.
7. It is important to remember that the amount that you are paying toward your medical bills needs to work for you, as opposed to simply meeting the hospital’s minimum requirement. Don’t agree to pay an amount that is completely outside of your ability to pay. Many times, business office personnel will ask you to pay a set amount, but if you can only pay $25 per month, then tell them that is all you can pay at this time, although that may change in the future. As long as you are paying something, the account cannot be turned over to a collection agency. It may take ten years to pay off that bill, but by only paying what you can realistically pay, you can be sure that you will have enough money left over for living expenses.
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8. Determining your actual needs versus your desires becomes important when it comes to finances. If your spending is out of control, it needs to be pared down so that your needs can be met, and your medical bills can be paid to the best of your financial ability. This is sometimes a difficult thing to do, no doubt, so post your financial goals somewhere so that you can be reminded of them often and so that the sacrifice that you are making to pay your bills seems worth it.
9. Try not to let bills reamain unpaid for months. Your credit will be continually reduced each month if this happens, and the bills will be turned over to a collection agency. Many times, though, even collection agencies are willing to work with you. It is important to explain your situation, including the fact that you are unable to work to pay off medical bills, if this applies. It helps to understand the way collection agencies work. Most agencies pay an agreed- upon amount to hospitals to assume responsibility for collecting the debt. The bill is no longer owed to the hospital; it is now owed to the collection agency. In fact, it is illegal for hospitals/clinics to continue billing you for that particular bill (although they will still bill you for future bills). If you are able, most agencies will offer you a reduced amount if you can pay cash for the entire amount at one time. Often, agencies will reduce the amount that you owe based on your financial circumstances. They will also allow you to set up a payment plan to pay the bill off. Ask if there is more than one account in your name, and make sure they combine those accounts so that you only make one payment per month. Also, remember to only pay what is realistic for you financially, as opposed to what the agency says you must pay. If you cannot pay what the agency asks for, tell them what amount you can pay.
10. Resources for those needing help paying for medical costs, and prescription costs in particular, include:
· Needy Meds at www.needymeds.org. This company provides a prescription savings card, which enables those eligible to get discounts on certain medications at participating pharmacies throughout the nation. For information, call 1-800-503-6897, or visit the website at www.needymeds.org.
· Healthcare Alliance also provides a similar prescription assistance card for those having difficulty paying for prescriptions. Visit Healthcare Alliance at www.TheHealthcareAlliance.com or call 1-866-501-0994.
· Visit www.RxAssist.org for a database of drug assistance programs provided by pharmaceutical companies that enable patients to receive assistance with numerous medications.
· Finally, The Partnership for Prescription Assistance also helps people find prescription assistance programs, as well as free or low-cost healthcare clinics. Visit www.pparx.org for more information.
The medical bill maze can often seem worse than the medical problem you are facing, particularly because the medical bills can follow you long after the medical problem is resolved. Being aware of the above information can help you find your way through the maze, and hopefully, bring you the peace of mind that you need to focus on the recovery of your health.
Laurie Miller is an author wife, mom, registered nurse, and patient with chronic illness. She enjoys spending time with family, reading, and blogging at godlivingwithchronicillness.com. Join her at www.facebook.com/godlivinggirls for an upcoming women’s online study on “Finding Joy and Purpose in Chronic Illness” starting Feb 1, 2016. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org to join.