Feel a headache come on every time you open another medical bill? Take these steps to tackle overwhelming medical debt.

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Around 23 million adults in the U.S. owe medical debt, according to a 2022 Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) survey. Of that number roughly 11 million owe at least $2,000 in medical bills, and around three million owe more than $10,000.

The same survey found that of those who owed a $2,000 medical bill, 32 percent weren’t able to pay it. And more than half of those surveyed with a $6,000 medical bill said they couldn’t afford to pay the debt. That’s a lot of worry on the minds of people just trying to take care of their and their family’s health.

The stress of unpaid medical debt can also take a toll on your mental health, according to a study by AIMS Public Health. The AIMS study found that people with medical bills are three times as likely to have depression, anxiety and stress over their medical debt.

Unpaid medical debt or bills paid late may also show up as negative payment history on your credit report. When that happens, your credit score will likely take a hit.

All that pressure might make you want to take to your bed and give up. But people pay off huge medical bills every day, so don’t assume paying off medical debt is beyond your reach.

Instead, take one or more of these three steps to pay off stressful medical debt.

Compare medical bills with EOBs

Your insurance provider will send what’s known as an explanation of benefits (EOB) for every medical claim submitted. At first glance, the EOB looks like a bill, but that’s not its purpose.

The EOB shows the service provided, how much your health care provider bills for that service and the medical billing code. Along with that information, the EOB also shows the amount your insurance company will reimburse and the amount under “patient responsibility” that you owe  the doctor or hospital.

Save all your EOBs in a file so you can compare the “patient responsibility” amount to the amount owed shown on the bill you receive from your healthcare provider. Look closely at the dates on the EOB and the medical bill. Sometimes, medical billing offices send a bill before the insurance company mails the EOB, which can result in overpayment.

If you’ve paid a medical bill, double check the amount billed and paid against the EOBs to make sure you didn’t pay too much. If you did, contact the doctor’s office or hospital, explain the situation and ask for a refund for the overpayment.

Negotiate a payment plan or settlement

When facing a large hospital bill, don’t automatically assume there’s no room for negotiating. You may be able to set up a payment plan with the billing department for monthly payments you can afford. Settling the debt for a smaller amount could be another option.

Hospitals and other healthcare providers want to get rid of your medical debt just as much as you do. That way, they don’t have to keep track of a payment plan or hound you when your payments are late. So, don’t overlook asking them to settle the debt for a lower amount.

Contact the billing department and tell them you can pay a smaller amount right away if they will settle. For example, if you owe $5,000, ask if they will accept $3,000, or even $2,500 to settle the debt immediately. Then do your best to scrounge up the money, whether that means borrowing from a family member or putting the debt on a low-interest credit card.

They may take you up on your offer or at least counter with an amount smaller than $5,000 to settle the debt. If negotiating with a hospital seems intimidating, don’t be afraid to take the chance. You have nothing to lose, and you may be able to pay off the medical bill sooner.

Hire a medical billing advocate

If you’re facing a large amount of medical debt, you’re probably staring down a stack of EOBs and confusing medical bills. Hiring a medical billing advocate if your medical debt is more than a few thousand dollars could be a good move and help you pay off debt faster.

A medical billing advocate knows what to look for in EOBs and medical bills to see whether you’re being overbilled or you overpaid a bill. Medical billing advocates are also experienced in negotiating medical bill settlements and appealing denied insurance claims.

Medical billing advocates typically charge a percentage of the amount they save you on medical bills. Some charge an hourly rate, ranging anywhere from $75 to $350 an hour.

However, saving yourself the stress of poring over bills and EOBs, negotiating and being transferred to four different insurance departments, only to have the call drop when you finally reach the right person, may be well worth the medical billing advocate’s fee.

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About the Author

Deb Hipp

Deb Hipp

Deb Hipp is a full-time freelance writer based in Kansas City, Mo. Deb went from being unable to get approved for a credit card or loan 20 years ago to having excellent credit today and becoming a homeowner. Deb learned her lessons about money the hard way. Now she wants to share them to help you pay down debt, fix your credit and quit being broke all the time. Deb's personal finance and credit articles have been published at Credit Karma and The Huffington Post.

Published by Debt.com, LLC