Increasing numbers of Americans are finding it difficult to keep up with medical
bills, and the problem is not confined to the uninsured or the poor. As the
cost of health care increases and employers and insurance companies look for
ways to reduce their costs, patients are being asked to contribute more in
deductibles and co-pays, often straining their personal and family finances.
Medical Bills a Major Problem for Many
A poll conducted in April by the Kaiser Family Foundation revealed that 28
percent of Americans considered health care bills to be a serious financial
problem for them or their families. The Commonwealth Fund, a private
organization with a mission of promoting a high performing and accessible
health care system, reported that 41 percent of American adults have medical
bills or have trouble paying medical bills, a 7 percent increase from 2005.
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And, it's estimated that about 2 million Americans (primary debtors and their
dependents) are affected by bankruptcies caused by medical bills each year.
With credit sources becoming more scarce and medical costs showing no signs of
leveling off, many experts predict that number will continue to rise.
Possible Consequences of Medical Debt
While a catastrophic illness or accident is likely to result in major bills and
wreak havoc with your budget, even illnesses such as chronic asthma or a
non-life threatening injury can result in high bills. Patients unable to pay
could face referral to a collection agency, garnished wages or even legal
action. So, what should you do if you find yourself saddled with medical bills
you're unable to pay?
Request to Pay Over Time
Do not ignore them. If you can't pay your medical bills on time, talk to health
care providers and hospital representatives about working out a payment
schedule. While hospitals, physicians and other health care providers are not
obligated to do so, many will be flexible with patients who are struggling with
medical bills. You may be able to get a no-interest payment plan, or your
provider may even be willing to waive a portion of your bill. Be up front about
your ability or lack of ability to pay.
Appeal a Denied Service or Treatment
Read your medical bills carefully and appeal the decision if your insurer
refuses to cover a service or treatment. If you don't get any satisfaction from
the insurance company and you feel you've been wronged, contact your state's
Avoid Putting Medical Expenses on High-Interest Credit Cards
Do not put medical bills on credit cards if you will not be able to pay them off
within a reasonable period of time. Some health care providers advise you to
open a medical credit card, which is used solely for the purpose of paying
medical bills. The catch, however, is that while these might carry low-interest
introductory rates, the rates can quickly double or triple. Unpaid medical
bills do not affect your credit rating score as negatively as late or skipped
payments on credit cards, so think carefully before using a card.
Consider Debt Consolidation Cautiously
Watch out for debt consolidation programs or loans that sound too good to be true, or those that use your home as collateral. There are a lot of for profit companies offering debt consolidation. If you want to explore this route, it's best to get some expert advice.
Check Out Your Eligibility for Assistance
If you don't have insurance, check to see if you are eligible for Medicaid or the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which covers anyone who qualifies up to age 18. You can learn more about who is eligible for Medicaid at www.cms.hhs.gov/medicaid/eligibility. More information about the SCHIP programs is available at www.cms.hhs.gov. There also are programs that may offer help in paying your medical bills. The Patient Advocate Foundation offers a state-by-state directory of programs, as well as a co-pay relief directory.
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While medical debt is mounting nationally, there are steps you can take to
manage it. If you are one of the 28 percent of Americans for whom medical debt
is a serious financial problem, considering consulting a professional financial
consultant or lawyer.
About Medical Debt
Medical debt is an increasingly common, and serious, problem
Those unable to pay medical bills should pursue payment plan options, appeal
insurers' denials to cover services, and determine whether they qualify for
medical assistance or help with their bills.
Do not attempt to solve your medical debt problem by paying with a
high-interest credit card or using a debt consolidation program that puts your
home at risk. Negotiating directly with the company is a better alternative.
Seek the advice of a professional if you have substantial medical debt that
you're unable to pay.