As if a devastating diagnosis or an emergency procedure isn’t enough of a surprise, consider this: often these tests and procedures are followed by unexpectedly large medical bills. These bills can be bewildering, especially if you’re trying to deal with them while you’re still sick and/or in the process of recovering from your ailments. One recent study showed that out of the 83% of survey participants who had health insurance, nearly 27% of them had difficulty paying those bills; also, 43% of survey participants who had been uninsured in the past year but who had since gained coverage also reported problems paying their medical bills. These costs can be so daunting that they can result in bankruptcy. The study also showed that the bankruptcy rates are nearly twice as high among cancer patients one year after diagnosis as compared to that of the general population; these bankruptcy rates (highest for lung, thyroid, and leukemia/lymphoma cancer patients) increased fourfold five years after diagnosis.
Fortunately, there are several ways you can avoid incurring these large bills that could result in bankruptcy. The below tips can help you plan ahead to reduce medical costs and can point you in the right direction when it comes to finding help negotiating unpaid medical bills.
Plan ahead if you can. If you know in advance that you’re scheduled for tests or surgery, do your research ahead of time.
- Be informed. If you are insured, know the details of what your health insurance plan covers. Being insured does not always mean that your medical costs are all covered. Ask your insurer and/or provider for an estimated cost of the treatment.
- When your doctor recommends treatment for you, find out whether that treatment is included in your insurance plan; if it isn’t, inquire about other treatments that your insurance does cover.
- Verify that the provider you choose is “in-network.” While you’re at it, make sure that any labs that provider may use in the process of various tests they’re performing are also considered in-network, as well as the facility that the provider is in. If the provider and/or the lab and facility the provider is using are in-network, your medical bills can be much less costly than if any of them are considered out-of-network by your insurance.
Emergencies happen. Of course, you can’t always plan ahead. Diseases aren’t exactly considerate enough to make an appointment with you or warn you ahead of time–so you may end up in the hospital unexpectedly. So how do you deal with costs incurred from a surprise surgery?
- Read your bill carefully. Ask for an itemized bill at the conclusion of your hospital stay. Be aware that this may not include information on what you or your insurer will be asked to pay. But this could help you spot major errors on your bills–for instance, does the bill indicate that you received a treatment or procedure that you didn’t actually receive? If so, pointing those errors out could save you money.
- In addition to asking for an itemized bill, also ask the hospital for a copy of your pharmacy ledger–which details what drugs you were given through the course of your stay–and your medical chart. Look these over carefully to make sure the hospital isn’t charging you for any drugs you didn’t actually take.
- Watch out for any discrepancies on your bill. Are you being charged twice for a test or procedure because medical staff messed up the first time around and had to run the test or procedure a second time? You shouldn’t be responsible for paying for additional treatment that came as a result of a staff error.
- Ask for a discount–especially if you’re uninsured. When you attempt to negotiate the price of treatment, the worst the doctor or hospital can say is no. The best that can happen is that your costs are lowered. The potential money saved is worth asking that question.
Look to your benefits for help. Navigating the healthcare system and making sense of complicated medical bills can be intimidating. There are resources to guide you through the process.
- Many employers offer advocacy services as a benefit to their employees. One such service is Health Advocate, whose Core Health Advocacy program helps assist employees with clinical and administrative issues that deal with their medical, dental, hospital, and prescription needs, claims, and benefits. A complementary add-on to Health Advocate’s Core Health Advocacy service is the Medical Bill Saver, which helps negotiate employees’ unpaid medical and dental bills whose balances are over $400.
- Even if you’re not receiving benefits from an employer, there are still advocacy resources available to you. Health Proponent offers individuals the Core Health Advocacy and Medical Bill Saver programs, too.