By LaToya Irby
Medical bills were the cause of 62% of bankruptcies in 2007, according to a study by the American Journal of Medicine. Even more alarming, 80% of those who filed medical debt bankruptcy actually had health insurance and their debt was low ($18,000) compared to those who filed but didn't have health insurance ($27,000). Needless to say, medical debt is a serious issue in the United States.
Medical bills are quite serious and can cripple your finances. Hopefully, you can deal with your medical debt before it pushes you to bankruptcy.
Burying your head in the sand won’t make the bills go away. In fact, it could make the situation worse. Doctors and other medical providers will only collect on your account for a few months before they send the account to a collection agency. At that point, the medical bill goes on your credit report and hurts your future chances of borrowing money, e.g. for a house. You can also be sued for the debt, which could result in a judgment, bank levy, or wage garnishment.
Read through the mail to make sure you actually have a balance due. Sometimes the health insurance company sends an explanation of benefits to explain what’s been paid on your behalf. The EOB can actually give you a heads up to medical bills that are on their way. If the EOB shows the insurance company only paid part of the claim, you can expect the doctor's office to send a bill soon.
Medical billing is complex and mistakes can happen. Make sure your doctor’s office billed the insurance company for the right services and follow up with the insurance company to figure out why the bill wasn’t paid. Being proactive in clearing up mistakes can save you thousands of dollars.
You may be able to pay medical bills, especially small ones, in a lump-sum if you have the money in a savings account or emergency fund. Just write a check and mail it to the billing address listed on your bill. Make sure you write the account number on the check so you don’t keep getting billed. If you’re not paying the balance in full, call the doctor’s office to set up payment arrangements before the debt is sent to a collection agency.
Contact your doctor’s office if you're not paying your bill in full immediately even if you plan to follow up with the insurance company, so billing department is aware that you’re not just ignoring the bill. If you are responsible for the balance, ask for a payment plan. Make sure you review your budget to figure out what you can afford. As with any other bill, make your payments on time each month. Otherwise, your account may be sent to a collection agency despite your previous payments.
Don’t ignore bills from your child’s doctor or emergency room visit. Among the forms you signed was an agreement to pay for any of your child’s medical expenses that weren’t covered by health insurance. If you don’t pay the bill, it will hurt your credit the same as if it were your own medical bill.
Medicaid is a health insurance for low-income residents who can’t afford their medical care expenses. Qualification criteria vary by state, so you must contact your state Medicaid office to find out if you qualify. (Your child may be eligible for Medicaid even if you are not.) If you qualify, Medicaid can be used to pay for medical expenses you’ve already incurred, but only within a certain time frame, so apply as soon as possible after receive a medical bill.
It’s not the ideal solution, but when all else fails, you can put the medical bill on your credit card to keep it from being sent to a collection agency. Pick your own credit card, though, based on interest rate, available credit, and other features. Don’t sign up for medical credit cards or loans offered through your physician’s office without comparing to other credit card options.
In the absence of any other solution, you may have to get help through bankruptcy court. Medical debt can be completely discharged if you qualify for Chapter 7 bankruptcy or you can pay it over three to five years through a Chapter 13 repayment plan. Bankruptcy may be the least desired solution, but it’s better than struggling to make ends meet while making payments on medical debt that may never be paid.
If the bill is already with a collection agency, you can follow most of these same steps. You can also send a cease and desist letter to the collection agency if you want them to stop contacting you about the debt. Be aware that a collection agency also has the right to report a debt on your credit report, sue you, and garnish your wages (with the court’s permission).