In the midst of a medical recovery, the last thing you want to deal with is an unexpectedly high medical bill. As Americans continue to pay an estimated $3.4 trillion yearly in health care costs, it’s likely that at some point we’ll all encounter a big bill from a trip to the doctor’s office or an unscheduled emergency room visit. In fact, a previous report found that 26 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 64 have encountered financial hardship as a result of a medical bill.
It’s impossible to anticipate your every medical emergency that may arrive, but you can prepare your finances to potentially cover large bills — medical and otherwise. “Keep funds in the bank to cover expenses for at least three months,” Jill Perlin, vice president of advanced markets and sales training, Prudential Financial said.
However, there are times when even proper financial planning isn’t enough to cover healthcare costs. The arrival of a medical bill might seem like the final say in how much you’re required to pay, but as experts explained, there are ways to lower your medical bills, no matter the cost.
Contact your provider.
Mistakes happen, even when it comes to the cost of your medical care. If a bill arrives, and it seems unexpectedly high or you have concerns about the cost, your first call should be to your insurer and the medical care provider.
Perlin explained that clerical errors can happen. “Reach out to both your insurer and the medical provider’s billing department, to ensure the amount billed is accurate and that any coverage from a health insurer has been applied,” she said.
Additionally, Donna Rosato, senior editor of the money section of Consumer Reports, said that medical billing mistakes are not uncommon. She specifically pointed to medical coding — which is a practice of listing out exactly what occurred during a visit. She said to inquire with your provider whether there’s been a coding mistake or to voice your concern if something was coded incorrectly. The American Medical Association recommends ensuring that you were billed for the correct time you spent with a doctor and that you were billed only for procedures you received.
Inquire about a payment plan.
After confirming that your bill is correct, your next step should be to inquire with the hospital and your insurance provider about possible payment plans. “Consider negotiating if you’re having trouble paying the bill,” Rosato said. “The health care provider is going to want some form of payment. If you offer to pay it all upfront you could get the bill reduced.” A possible reduction on your final bill may extend to those who choose to pay completely with cash, too.
Some hospitals may offer a payment plan program similar to that offered by health insurance companies. Rosato reminded patients to inquire with their medical provider whether they have a charity program or financial assistance. In some cases, hospitals also offer a payment plan that can reduce how much you’re expected to pay each month.
Consider working with a medical billing advocate.
For those feeling totally overwhelmed by medical bills, Rosato suggested hiring a medical billing advocate. The cost of advocate services vary, but those with particularly large bills or those contending with a series of multiple bills may find that the benefit outweighs the cost of hiring additional help.
A medical billing advocate will analyze your bills and look for possible errors or reductions on services, Rosato explained. Consumer Reports notes that advocates can charge as much as $100 an hour and some may take a percentage of your possible savings, but in the case of one patient who spoke with Consumer Reports, an advocate was able to reduce a $75,000 bill down to $17,000.
Other advocate groups including the Patient Advocate Foundation and Heart Valve CareLine may provide you with an advocate free of charge. Whether you qualify for a free advocate depends on your medical needs and current financial status.
With the right planning and information, it is possible to reduce the cost of a surprisingly large medical bill. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and to question the cost. When it comes to your health, making the right decisions — even when it comes to billing — can have a huge impact on your future.