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What to do when you can’t afford a medical bill

Here are your options for paying off a medical bill that you can't afford.

If you recently got a medical bill in the mail that made your eyes bulge, you’re not alone.

Medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy for Americans. And even outside of bankruptcy, more than 20% of Americans between 19 and 64 years old will still struggle to cover medical bills this year.

Although medical insurance can make a big difference in reducing your medical costs, some insured Americans are still struggling to pay their bills thanks to the high deductibles and copays of employer-sponsored plans.

And for the Americans who get their insurance from one the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges, their copays can be even higher: Almost 90% have individual plan deductibles of at least $1,300, and family plan deductibles of around $2,600.

If you’ve been hit with a medical bill you simply can’t stomach, don’t call the doctor for that nausea. Here are your options for paying off a medical bill that you can’t afford.

1. Get an itemized bill

First things first: don’t pay for a service or medication you didn’t receive.

According to the Medical Billing Advocates of America, 8 in 10 hospital bills have mistakes. 

Be sure to request an itemized statement of your bill after you leave the doctor’s office, hospital or emergency room. Most medical facilities automatically send out a summary with no details about your charges.

Go through every item in your bill and call your insurance company or the hospital or doctor’s office if you find a charge that isn’t legit. 

For instance, if you checked out of the hospital in the morning, make sure you weren’t charged for an entire day of care, or for any tests or medications you didn’t receive. 

If you have medical insurance, go through your Explanation of Benefits and make sure your plan is covering all the items for which it's responsible.

2. Don’t be afraid to negotiate

No doctors or hospitals want to send your bills to collections — it’s just as much a pain for them as it is for you. 

Don’t assume the hospital or doctor’s office won’t work with you on your bill. Be sure to ask about any potential discounts or payment options available.

If you can cover most of your medical bill but could use a little help, you could find out if the hospital or doctor’s office will give you a one-time discount for paying your bill in one lump sum within 30 days. 

Use the Healthcare Blue Book to see what other nearby hospitals or doctors charge for the same services you received. If your bill is for a lot more than other local offices, you can use the price comparison to ask for a discount.

3. Ask about a payment plan

Some hospitals and doctor offices offer a payment plan to help lessen the initial blow of a medical bill.

Every medical office has its own payment plan procedures. At some, you may need to see if you qualify for Medicaid first. If not, then the hospital may allow you to you apply for financial help.

There are also some national charities that offer help with medical bills, like CancerCare and the Healthwell Foundation. 

4. Look into medicaid

Find out if your family is within the eligible income range for Medicaid and apply for coverage. 

Medicaid and other government-funded financial aid programs will often help cover outstanding medical bills once you’re signed up. 

5. Crowdfund your bill

Crowdfunding can help you get donations from your personal network to raise the funds you need to cover your bill. 

Crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe, Indiegogo or GiveForward let you set a goal amount and start a campaign page for your medical bill. 

You can then promote your campaign on your social media platforms to inspire friends and family to donate. And don’t forget this step — the most successful crowdfunded campaigns are shared across social media platforms.

Most crowdfunding sites take a percentage of your donations as a service fee, but some even allow donors to cover that charge, too. 

6. Don’t ignore the bill

Whatever you do, don’t ignore your medical bill. If you wait too long, the hospital or doctor’s office will turn it over to collections. 

Once you’ve got a bill in collections, it can hurt your credit score and affect the types of loans you qualify for (or prevent you from qualifying altogether). 

Even if you have medical insurance, you may end up spending a lot more on treatment without an accident insurance plan. 

From a slip on the ice to breaking an ankle during a recreational soccer game, accident insurance helps cover treatment options that your regular insurance plan might not.

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Brought to you by The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (Guardian), New York, NY. Material discussed is meant for general illustration and/or informational purposes only and it is not to be construed as tax, legal, investment or medical advice.
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