Getting sick with a life altering disease is bad enough as it is but it can feel even worse when the bills start rolling in. We have a friend that had emergency intestinal surgery last year and his hospital bill was over $120,000. Fortunately he had insurance that covered the majority of this cost. What can you do if you’re staring at a huge stack of medical bills and they add up to much more than you can afford? Here are six things you could do that might help.
A good first step would be to pick up the phone, call the hospital or doctor and offer to pay a smaller amount that you could manage. You will need to make sure that you’re speaking with someone that has the authority to negotiate with you. The simple fact is that if you don’t get the right person you won’t get the right answer. Experts in this area say that the best time to call to negotiate is first thing in the morning and early in the process – or soon after you get the bill or bills. It’s important to remain civil and not lose your temper. For example you could say, “Gosh, I just lost my job and I can’t afford this $100,000 bill. What would you do if you were in my situation?”
The reason why it’s important to negotiate early on in the process is because you don’t want to wait until the doctor or hospital turns your bill over to a debt collection agency. These agencies generally get 50% of what you agree to pay. This would leave the healthcare provider getting only 50% of your debt. Why not offer your provider 50% of what you owe? It might agree because it would end up getting the same amount of money.
Request a repayment plan
A second option would be to work out a payment plan with the medical provider. This would likely have either very low or no interest. The important thing is to negotiate for what you can afford. If your provider asks for $100 a month but you could pay only $50, let the provider know. That way you would be able to maintain your payments. Most hospitals are willing to work with people because they would rather get the money a little at a time than not get any at all.
Hire a professional negotiator
There are professional companies such as CoPatient that will negotiate in your behalf in order to reduce your bills. These companies will also review your bills looking for errors. As an example of this CoPatient says that it has saved its customers an average of 40%. It charges clients a fee equal to 35% of the amount of money it saves them. In addition, these companies know the lingo and how to work the system. If you were to try this on your own you would probably need to have a completely different dictionary just to understand all the medical technology.
The Patient Advocate Foundation could be another source for help. And it doesn’t charge anything for its services. It reports that its customers that have had an average of $1800 in debt have been able to get this reduced by 20% to 30%.
Look for financial assistance
If the healthcare provider or hospital is a nonprofit, check to see if you might qualify for financial assistance. One of the directives of the Affordable Care Act is that non-profits need to have formal policies on the financial help that’s available. If it turns out that your eligible you could have all or a large part of your bill waived. Even if you aren’t technically eligible for this assistance you should apply if you can’t afford the debt because it never hurts to ask.
While crowdfunding could help, you might find it a little distasteful because what it really amounts to is begging. You could go to Kickstarter, GiveForward or another similar site and create a campaign where friends, family members and sympathetic strangers could donate money to help you pay your bills. For your crowdfunding campaign to be successful you need to show why you’re deserving and you will need to outline specific needs. Successful crowdfunding efforts also include:
- Personalization, persistence and promotion
- Keeping potential donors abreast of what’s happening with your campaign
- Creating new reasons for people to give
- Setting incremental deadlines designed to encourage people to donate
Do be aware that these sites do charge fees. For example, Kickstarter takes 5% of whatever amount of money you raise and also charges $.20 for each pledge plus 3%. The fee on Give Forward is 7.9%, plus $.50 for each transaction. This is to cover the costs of its online payment service provider and also to pay the company’s developers and coaches.
Maybe this seems obvious but you could always put those medical bills on a credit card to satisfy your debts. If you choose a card with cash back, points or airline miles you could get some nice rewards in the process. However, this is not the best first step. Once you put your medical debt on a credit card you will no longer have any negotiating power. Plus, it’s more than likely that you’ll end up paying more in interest. Medical debt on a payment plan is generally interest-free. If you switch that debt over to a credit card you’re turning interest-free debt into an interest-barring debt. This means it will end up costing you more.
Look for help from a charity
There are a number of charities focused on specific illnesses or conditions. This is true of Crohn’s disease, HIV, diabetes, breast cancer and many more. If your illness falls into one of these categories you should definitely contact the appropriate organization to see what financial help it might have available. In addition, there are government programs that could help. For example there are government programs that offer cash monthly for people that have disabilities and are having a problem making ends meet. The Social Security Administration offers a good deal of user-friendly information on the disability benefits it offers. It’s available at www.SSA.gov/dibplan. You might be eligible for this program if:
- You are unable to do the work you did before you became disabled
- The SSA determines that there is no other work you could do because of your medical condition(s)
- The disability you are experiencing is expected to last for at least one year or result in death.