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How to Pay Medical Bills You Can’t Afford

20 January 2020
Angie Watson
Injury and illness don’t wait until we have sufficient funds in our bank accounts to cover medical treatment. When it concerns your health, you often have no choice but to seek care regardless of whether you can afford it.

But then you need to figure out what to do when you receive your medical bills. If you cannot afford to pay them out-of-pocket, what do you do?

You’re Not Alone with Medical Debt

When you are staring at a bill that you cannot possibly pay, it is easy to feel like you are utterly alone.

A patient is receiving a huge medical bill from his doctor

But if you are asking: “What if I can’t pay my hospital bill?” – you are not the only one.

According to a survey by New Kaiser and the New York Times, 20% of working-age Americans with health insurance declare having problems paying medical bills that cause serious financial challenges and changes in employment and lifestyle. The situation is even worse among uninsured people: 53% face problems with medical bills, bringing the overall total to 26 percent.

While this is a dire situation for a first world country, it does mean that there are some options for help with medical bills that may be available to you.

Whether you need help paying hospital bills after insurance or without it, this guide will help point you in the right direction.

What Can You Do When You Receive A High Medical Bill?

If you can’t pay medical bills, here are some things you should do right away:

Double-check the charges. First of all, get assured that you are not being charged for any services incorrectly. The last thing you want to be doing is struggling to pay bills that you do not really owe. It occurs more often than you think.

Avoid using a credit card. Resist the urge to go directly for your credit card as this is a form of high-interest debt, and there may be more affordable alternatives.

Request a discount. Sometimes you can get a discount on a medical service simply by stating your need and showing a lower price in the Healthcare Blue Book. A provider may be willing to drop a bill by as much as 10% if they believe it is their best chance of getting paid.

Try negotiating. Many medical bills go unpaid for years, and quite a few are never paid off in full. Again, it is in the provider’s interest to be willing to deal. So, if you make a compelling offer, there is a chance that the provider will accept it.

Come up with a payment plan. If you cannot afford to pay your entire bill now, it is less likely to be sent to collections if you work with the provider to create a payment plan. Tell them how much you can afford to pay each month toward your bill. Once again, if it is the best chance to get paid, they will probably say yes. They are more likely to be able to successfully collect from you over time on a payment plan than they are to be able to retrieve the lump sum through collections.

See if financial assistance is available to you through your provider. Some hospitals and clinics offer financial aid to patients in need who do not qualify for Medicare or Medicaid.

Get Help with Your Medical Bills

If you still need further medical bill assistance, here are some additional recommendations.

Use a loan to pay off your medical bills. If there is no getting around paying a bill in full right away, it might be time to think about applying for an emergency loan.

See if financial aid is available from the federal government. If you qualify for Medicare, which is a federal program, or Medicaid, which is a joint federal-state program, that can be a big help in covering your medical expenses.

Check into state aid. There may be medical assistance that you can qualify for through your state. As an example, if you are a resident of Oregon, and your income does not exceed a certain threshold, you can apply for the Oregon Health Program (OHP). On OHP, the majority of medical expenses are covered in full. Additionally, OHP provides dental coverage.

Apply for charity care. Depending on the procedure, your hospital or clinic could screen you automatically for charity care, or you might need to apply. If you are eligible, your medical bill may be either discounted or erased. Check your state’s regulations to see if there are specific laws that limit the amount of money you can be charged by a hospital that offers charity care. If charity care for some reason is not available to you, consider a loan. It will take you a few minutes to find out if an online loan is a solution suitable for you.

What Happens If You Don’t Pay Your Medical Bills?

Even though you are here trying to figure out how to get out of paying medical bills, you must do all in your power to pay those which you cannot get the provider to write off.

The reason you cannot simply ignore your bills and hope they go away is that they won’t. If you have not paid your medical bills or are not currently on a payment plan, the provider will eventually send them to collections. The collections agency will call you and mail you to attempt to get you to pay the bill and will do so aggressively. Meanwhile, your credit score can take a nosedive, which can make it more difficult to qualify for financial assistance you might need.

What Can You Do If A Medical Bill Goes to Collections?

If you do wind up with a bill in collections:

  • First, know your rights. Collections agents cannot legally harass you or threaten you.
  • Do not ignore the collections agency.
  • Proactively contact the collections agency with a plan. This could be either a payment plan or a renegotiation of the amount you owe.

Because providers are far more likely to negotiate with you than collections agencies, it is critical to try and prevent bills from going to collections in the first place.

The Last Resort: Filing for Bankruptcy

If it has gotten to the point where you are at the receiving end of a lawsuit, and you will end up losing everything if your wages are garnished, you do have the final option of filing for bankruptcy. By doing so, you may have a chance of reducing your medical bills or eliminating them.

Final Word

When you are just making both ends meet, being handed a medical bill, you cannot afford, can be intimidating.

But because there are so many other Americans in the same predicament you are, you do have options in the form of requesting discounts, renegotiating amounts, applying for various forms of aid, or taking out a loan with a fast approval.

Find some time to investigate your options and keep the channels of communication with your provider open. Hopefully, you can save money through one or more of these methods and buy yourself some time.

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