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How to avoid medical debt and how to get out of it

Unpaid medical bills remain the single largest cause of personal bankruptcy. But there are ways to mitigate expensive medical treatment and reduce debt.
Pictured above is a hospital statement for surgery and almost four days of intensive care. Experts say there are steps patients can take to protect themselves from medical debt and to get out of debt .
Pictured above is a hospital statement for surgery and almost four days of intensive care. Experts say there are steps patients can take to protect themselves from medical debt and to get out of debt . [ Ryan Naylor ]
Published Aug. 2|Updated Aug. 5

Some 100 million people are carrying health care debt.

That’s according to a recent survey by Kaiser Family Foundation, which found that included 41% of all U.S. adults.

Almost 60% of debts recorded in collections were for medical bills, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Medical debt remains the single largest cause of personal bankruptcy.

Deb Gordon, contributor at MoneyGeek and co-director of the Alliance of Professional Health Advocates
Deb Gordon, contributor at MoneyGeek and co-director of the Alliance of Professional Health Advocates [ MoneyGeek ]

The Tampa Bay Times talked with Deb Gordon, contributor at MoneyGeek and co-director of the Alliance of Professional Health Advocates, which helps people access health care, for advice on how to avoid debt and what to do when hefty medical bills start arriving.

Related: After ankle injury, Tampa Bay man faces $170K in medical bills

Here are some tips:

How to prevent debt

• Do not put off regular checkups, screenings and other preventative procedures because you are concerned about the cost. Waiting until it’s too late will be more expensive.

• If you cannot afford the insurance offered by your employer or you are unemployed, several options may be available, including Medicaid and insurance through the Affordable Care Act.

• Some communities provide indigent care to low-income residents and those who are uninsured. Most also have Federally Qualified Health Centers, nonprofit clinics that receive federal money to provide basic health care to those without insurance.

• Local nonprofits may help with medical bills for illnesses that fit their mission.

• In cases where medical procedures are scheduled, talk to the provider about the cost, payment options and whether doctors who may not be covered by your insurance will be involved. A provider may agree on a plan ahead of time.

What to do when hefty medical bills arrive

• Don’t fall prey to anxiety and leave medical bills unopened. Delaying them will reduce options and likely lead to the debt being sent to collections.

• Bills often are wrong and can be challenged. Scrutinize every page and make sure the dates of treatment and the procedures and medications listed match what was administered.

• The No Surprises Act, which took effect Jan. 1, protects patients receiving medical services from out-of-network providers at in-network facilities. It also sets out a framework for uninsured patients to dispute bills substantially greater than the good-faith estimate they were given.

• If you cannot afford a bill, tell the provider and try to negotiate a reduced price. Some providers may offer interest-free payment plans or offer a discount if you can make a sizable upfront payment.

• Many hospitals have charity programs or offer help to patients who meet financial criteria or who end up with large medical bills. Find out what programs are available and apply quickly.

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• Medical credit cards can help when you don’t have money on hand immediately for needed treatment and can pay that debt down quickly. But read the small print. Many raise the interest rate after a set period of time.

• For especially large bills, it may make sense to hire a medical advocate to negotiate with the provider.

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