A large medical bill is scary, but it won’t hurt your credit and it doesn’t accrue interest charges. It’s when it gets to collections that your credit will suffer and you may need medical debt relief.
Paying off medical bills before they go to collections
If you currently have a medical bill – not a medical debt in collections – you can talk directly to your provider’s billing department and/or your insurance company to try to negotiate.
In addition, even if the bill has passed to collections, you can still try contacting the original medical service provider to negotiate. Medical service providers may be willing to work with you directly, so you can avoid the stress of trying to deal with a collector.
Review your bill to make sure it’s correct
Just because it looks official doesn’t mean that all the information is correct. Take some time to review your health care bill. Did you receive all the procedures listed? Or were some of them added by mistake? Checking for errors can save you thousands of dollars in medical expenses if you find out you’re being charged for a procedure that you didn’t receive.
Know what your insurance covers
When looking through your bill, make sure to check the column that shows how much your insurance company put toward each item. Health insurers make mistakes, too, and there may also be errors here. If you have any questions about what’s covered, what’s not covered, and how much should be covered, call your insurance company directly and ask. Even if a claim is rejected, you have a right to appeal.
If you have gap insurance, also make sure to check with the gap provider to see if it would cover the bill. Gap is often not applied correctly, and you may be covered even if your primary insurance doesn’t cover a procedure.
Talk to your medical provider first
Before you get a lawyer or debt settlement company to intervene, talk to your medical provider directly. Even if they already sent the bill to collections, you still may be able to discuss your payment arrangement with them. You may even be able to reduce the amount of your bill.
Ask about a payment plan
In the end, all that matters to the medical providers is that they get their money. You may be able to negotiate a payment plan with monthly payments that will be easier on your wallet than paying everything in a lump sum upfront.
Medical credit cards
Some offices that don’t offer payment plans offer medical credit cards instead. Usually, they offer a 6-12-month interest-free period. Calculate what your monthly payments would be to pay off what you owe in that period. If it’s feasible, the medical credit card may be worth it. If you won’t be able to make the payments and you’ll get hit with interest later, see if there is another way to pay.
Income-driven hardship plan
Depending on your income and medical costs, you may qualify for a different kind of plan with monthly payments determined by your income. This plan could reduce the total cost of what you owe.
Causes of medical debt
According to a 2016 medical bills study from The Kaiser Family Foundation and The New York Times, 26% of people said they or someone in their household had trouble paying medical bills within the last 12 months.
The majority of those with medical debt (66%) are struggling because of a one-time or short-term medical event. It happens to both those with insurance and those without — expensive procedures and medical care don’t discriminate.
Additionally, the amounts people struggle to pay vary widely. The Kaiser Family Foundation study broke down how many people are struggling with what amounts:
- Less than $500: 10%
- $500 to less than $1,000: 14%
- $1,000 to less than $2,500: 19%
- $2,500 to less than $5,000: 24%
- $5000 to less than $10,000: 18%
- $10,000 or more: 13%
The Peter G. Peterson Foundation projects that healthcare spending in the United States is only going up from here:
If you get high medical bills like these and they go to collections, then you must deal with the medical debt.
Options for dealing with medical debt in collections
Medical debt consolidation
Consolidating your medical debt means rolling all your medical debt into one monthly payment. You can do this in a couple different ways:
Debt consolidation loans
If you have good credit, then you should be able to qualify for a debt consolidation loan. This is an unsecured personal loan that you can use to pay off other debts, including unpaid medical bills. This will allow you to pay off the medical bills in a lump sum to avoid the hassle of setting up repayment plans.
Debt management program (DMP)
To put your medical debt in a DMP, you must be enrolling in the program primarily for credit card debt. Read about credit counseling below to find out how it works.
Certified credit counselors help you find the best way for you to pay off your debt. Often, this involves enrolling in a debt management program (DMP) in which your counselor consolidates your debt payments and guides you along the path toward debt relief. Like negotiating your own payment plan, a DMP will help you pay off your debt in full.
Settling your medical debt means paying less than what you owe. Your monthly payments will be smaller, but your credit score will take a hit.
To settle, you can either negotiate directly with a collection agency or work with a debt settlement company. Setting up a settlement program through a company is often a better solution if you have multiple accounts in collections.
If the amount of medical debt you owe is simply too much for you to ever pay back, bankruptcy may be the best option.
It will definitely damage your credit score. But it will provide the fresh start you need.
Chapter 7 or Chapter 13?
In Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the bank sells your assets to repay your creditors. In Chapter 13, the courts determine a plan that will help you repay some of what you owe. To file for bankruptcy, you need to work with a lawyer.
Can you go to jail for not paying a medical bill?
Absolutely not. There is no longer such a thing as a debtors’ prison. If you don’t pay a medical bill, it will likely be sent to collections, may leave a bad mark on your credit report, and could lower your overall credit score, but you will not go to jail.