In this last installment of the series, we finally get to the question that many people need answered – “How do I pay my ridiculously high hospital bill?”
Seriously speaking, huge medical bills are one of the three most common reasons that drive people to bankruptcy and about 75% of those who did go on to bankruptcy had insurance at the time (2001)! With our current financial melt-down driving more people to be uninsured these figures are sure to be even more tragic.
To get a basic idea of what a typical hospital admission cost for an uninsured person, the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project published their study in Feb 2009 that showed: “Hospital charges for uninsured stays grew by 76%, from an average of $11,000 to $19,400 per stay (after adjusting for inflation), compared to 69% growth in hospital charges overall.” And this doesn’t typically include ambulance fees or things like ICU or emergency surgery.
So for the average person barely staying afloat in troubled financial waters, getting that $20,000 medical bill has led some to even consider suicide. But it doesn’t have to be that bad thankfully.
Just a few weeks ago, I met Margaret when contacted me after having to take her son to the ER. It was a traumatic and overwhelming event for her when she watched her 5 year old vomit and then his eyes rolled up into the back of his head and he became unconscious. She immediately called 911 and EMS took the boy to the closest ER where he was intubated (was put on a breathing tube) and then flown out by helicopter to the Children’s Hospital downtown. There, he spent 3 days in the Pediatric ICU where he had a CT and MRI of his brain, a spinal tap as well as numerous blood tests. Thankfully, he was released in good condition 4 days later without any exact diagnosis for his episode.
The most important thing was that her son was ok, but since Margaret had no medical insurance, she knew even before getting the bill that it was going to be a bear – a really big, hungry and mean Grizzly bear. She didn’t exactly qualify for medicaid due to her income either. Worried and overwhelmed, she tried to get answers before the bills came which was the right thing to do. Her story thus had another good ending that she found some clever ways to lower her son’s bill (which incidentally was about $67,000) to something more manageable. Here are a few tips:
1. Remember that hospitals and doctor’s offices are HAPPY to work with someone who actually wants to pay. they spend enough time tracking down people who have ignored bills that they will gladly work with you. Even if you cannot reduce your bill, you can always pay monthly installments without interest. I personally know people who have arranged to pay as little as $50/month and less after a childbirth for example.
2. If you can pay a substantial downpayment – say for example 10-25% of the bill – this can make even the greediest hospital ready to negotiate a lower total bill. And again, the rest can be paid monthly. You will have more success with this step as with the first, if you contact them before the creditors come knocking on your door.
3. Always, always ask for an itemized bill and challenge what you see. Mistakes in this area are exceedingly common and you can always find something wrong. A medicine you were charged for that you never got, a box of tissue that you never used, a pregnancy test for your husband or a new set of spark plugs for your doctor’s Corvette. Ok, that last one you probably won’t find, but just wanted to be sure you were paying attention.
Authors at Bankrate.com report, “Estimates on hospital overcharges run up to $10 billion a year, with an average of $1,300 per hospital stay. Other experts say overcharges make up approximately 5% of hospital bills.” So don’t get fleeced on this easy step.
4. Consult with a medical billing advocate. Billing advocates basically work with hospitals and doctor’s offices on your behalf to get your bills reduced. A colleague recently spoke with Holly Wallack of Administrative Solutions Plus and was impressed by her services and dedication to helping patients control outrageous medical expenses.
Holly, who has been featured by Katie Couric, states on her website, “We review provider bills, hospital bills, and insurance documents for errors and overcharges. We negotiate with the party that has made the error, often reducing the charges to you and reducing your out of pocket cost. We can even help you recover money you’ve overpaid in the past. We believe that the majority of medical bills contain errors. Don’t pay more than you really owe.”
5. Check with your hospital to see if they offer any type of financial aid for overwhelmed patients. Hospitals usually don’t publicize these programs or provide much guidance on how to apply unless asked and pursued with diligence.
Things to avoid:
a. Bankruptcy – yes it is an option, but most would recommend against it and it stains your record for 10 years. If you can arrange a monthly payment then why would you go for bankruptcy? And no, “So I can keep watching cable” isn’t a good excuse.
b. Getting a loan – also an option advocated by some, but not a good one. You are only trading one mess for another in most cases.
c. Running to Mexico – sure they have nice sandy beaches and great weather, but better to leave that as a vacation option rather than your only option. Plus those drug traffickers and their pesky little wars can really throw a wrench into things.