Tips for avoiding medical debt

CNN’s Five mistakes that will land you in medical debt provides good advice to those who end up with big medical bills. Here are the mistakes they highlight:

  1. You ignore your bills –and end up hounded by a collection agency
  2. You don’t look for errors in your bills –because you don’t insist on an itemized bill or don’t scrutinize the one you receive
  3. You don’t negotiate the price down –when hospitals and doctors are usually quite willing to take what they can get
  4. You’re embarrassed to ask for financial assistance –even though there are several options and there’s nothing to be ashamed of
  5. You don’t work out a payment plan –even though hospitals and doctors will usually waive interest charges as well as accepting reduced payments

There’s another good pointer in the article: make sure your insurance pays all that it should.
I tend to agree with these pointers. Here are a few that I would add:

  • Treat hospital bills as something in between a legitimate debt to be paid in full and a nuisance to be avoided. The total amount stated doesn’t necessarily bear much resemblance to what an insurance company would pay or what the hospital expects to collect. As noted in #2, it may not even be that closely related to the care received. If you get a hospital bill for $15,000 (like the subject of the CNN story) don’t treat it like a $15,000 bill from the IRS. Don’t ignore it either (see #1).
  • Never take “no” from someone who isn’t empowered to say “yes.” This is very important. In negotiating a bill (or dealing with any other customer service problem for that matter) it’s likely you’ll spend a lot of frustrating time on the phone. Nothing personal –but if the person on the other end can’t solve your problem then get off the line with them ASAP.
  • It’s also important to have someone to help with the process. Dealing with medical bills is tough, especially when you’re sick or recovering from an illness.
  • Consider moving to Massachusetts. Sure health insurance is expensive here, but at least almost everyone has access to it.
September 2, 2008

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