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Dealing with medical bills? Some advice from a survivor

Six surgeries. A dozen hospitalizations, some a month in duration. Two stints in intensive care. Blood transfusions. Chemo. Radiation. Chemo again. Drugs. Months out of work. It's hard to believe that my wallet and I survived. I knew little about health insurance and hospital billings before my colon/rectal cancer diagnosis six years ago. Today, I feel like a graduate of a Ph.D. health program. Everybody's finances are different. Some folks don't have insurance. So there isn't one-size fits all strategy. I had health insurance. Not everyone is as lucky. A few simple, commonsense tips will help many weather the storm of major illness.

Support is essential

The first thing to realize is that you can't do it alone. In the year after my diagnosis, I was too sick to balance a checkbook. I leaned heavily on family. Your health, not your bank account, is Job 1.

Don't be too proud to accept help.

Seek the advice of people who have gone through the rigors of major illness. Take advantage of lessons they've learned. Many hospitals have support groups. Co-workers who have survived major illness will offer to help.

A supportive network will do more than provide good advice. It will boost your morale.

Get in the know

But as your health improves, you're invariably going to get dragged back to financial reality. When reality hits, remember this: Knowledge is power.

Never assume someone is giving you accurate and complete information. Learn your benefits. Ask questions. Browse the Internet. Call your HR representative. You are your own best advocate.

As journalists are fond of saying, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."

Details are important.

Know your copayments. I'm always surprised at how often I am quoted an inaccurate copay by a medical provider. If it tells you to pay an inflated copay, insist that it call your insurer.

Track your medical expenses and know precisely when you meet your policy's out-of-pocket maximum. I've discovered that medical providers routinely get this wrong. Some will keep billing you long after you max out.

In one case, I overpaid a doctor by $1,000. It took a month to get the refund, but I got it.

Dealing with bills

Open that unending stream of bills and insurance statements that will arrive in the mail in the months and years after you get sick.

It's easy to give up on it. It's depressing. But it's necessary.

Medical providers can double-bill, or bill you for services you didn't receive. Look for errors. If something looks weird, pick up the phone and call the insurer.

In one instance, I saw that my insurer was refusing to cover a room charge because I was in "a private room." In fact, it wasn't by choice. The hospital decided not to put a second patient in the room because of a mechanical problem with the bed.

If I hadn't read my bill closely, I would have paid it.

If you disagree with an insurer's decision to deny coverage, call to get the details. If necessary, file an appeal with the insurer challenging a decision. Hard to believe, but insurers sometimes see the light.

A few years ago, my insurer offered me a one-time waiver of a $500 bill that I had challenged. It wasn't saying the denial was in error. But for me, the result was the same.

Call your doctor or hospital and ask about financial assistance, either through the hospital or a charity or nonprofit. Hospitals can forgive part of your debt if you qualify. And if you do not, they will often work with you on a reasonable payment plan.

When creditors call

Don't hide from your creditors when money gets impossibly tight. Be frank. Explain your illness. Ask about plans to lower your monthly payments. Ask about refinancing a mortgage or a loan modification. Renegotiate credit card interest rates.

Creditors do not benefit if you declare bankruptcy.

As soon as you can, enroll in a tax-free medical spending account. The bureaucracy can be frustrating. But the tax savings are significant.

And don't let collection agencies bully you.

If they call you incessantly, send a registered letter telling them to contact you only by mail. If they don't, then consult an attorney. I sued a creditor who called me repeatedly at work on a debt owed by a relative.

In the end, it paid me $600 to settle and never called again.

Don't stop living

And, finally, your state of mind can be crucial to recovery. Perhaps you can't take that European vacation you had planned pre-illness. But figure out cheaper alternatives.

My wife and I have given a high priority to taking affordable, annual vacations. Nothing fancy. We keep costs low.

What's the point of surviving if you can't live your life?

Reach William R. Levesque at or (813) 226-3432.

Check your bill

Some of the most common medical billing errors to look for:

Data entry errors: Double-check everything from your name to your insurer's group number. If they're wrong, the amount covered may be wrong and you could be paying too much. Some experts estimate eight of every 10 hospital bill contain errors.

Unbundled fees: Call your insurer to see if multiple procedures should have been bundled under one lower fee. Avoid calling on Mondays when the phone lines are most busy.

Upcoding and upselling: Ensure that the diagnosis in your bill hasn't been bumped to a more serious condition. Also check closely that you haven't been charged for brand-name drugs if you were prescribed generic.

Nondiscounted rates: Patients with high-deductible plans should check that their insurer applies discounted group rates that have been negotiated by insurers and health care providers.

Sources: Consumer Reports, Associated Press, Washington Post

We want your input

What tips do you have for saving money in this awful economy? Share your secrets for publication in an upcoming feature. E-mail us at, on Facebook at Here's the Deal Tampa Bay; on Twitter at @HeresTheDealFL.

Dealing with medical bills? Some advice from a survivor 06/28/12 [Last modified: Thursday, June 28, 2012 2:51pm]
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