If you’re sick over medical debt you can’t pay, you’re not alone.

3 minute read

Nearly two-thirds (58 percent) of Americans surveyed had to take steps to handle unexpected medical and other expenses, during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent survey from Discover Personal Loans. Of those surveyed, three out of four Americans with medical debt owe more than $2,000 in outstanding payments.

Around four in 10 admit they’re unprepared to handle medical expenses that caught them by surprise. In fact, many respondents say the anxiety and stress caused by worrying about how to pay medical debt is even greater than their desire to get better. Many Americans also put off important medical care because they simply can’t afford it.

Around a third (29 percent) of Americans surveyed tapped into emergency savings to pay off medical bills and additional unexpected expenses. Others scraped together the money in different ways, including:

  • Borrowing money from family or friends (19 percent)
  • Paying some bills late (16 percent)
  • Charging large expenses on credit cards (13 percent)

“People should be more focused on getting and staying well, rather than feeling held back by medical bills,” says Matt Lattman, vice president of personal loans at Discover. However, that’s not easy when hospital and doctor billing offices threaten to harm your credit by turning your debt over to collections if you don’t pay up now.

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Medical debt creates hard financial choices

Americans who owe medical bills aren’t just potentially harming their health with anxiety and  stress-induced cortisone levels. According to the Discover survey, costs of medical care also prompted around 80 percent to postpone medical care by making difficult and possibly harmful choices, including:

  • Skipping routine checkups (44 percent)
  • Not purchasing necessary medications (39 percent)
  • Holding off on preventative testing (38 percent)
  • Seeing a doctor when sick (33 percent)
  • Postponing surgery (27 percent)
  • Not getting X-rays or scans (26 percent)
  • Failing to follow a doctor’s treatment plan (24 percent)
  • Seeing a specialist (24 percent)

Emergency medical expenses made up about 32 percent of unexpected expenses for those surveyed. Other unexpected expenses included loss of income (60 percent), auto repairs (37 percent) and home repairs (35 percent). Of those who chose not to put off medical care, around 41 percent had to charge health care expenses on their credit cards, adding costly credit card debt and interest to their current stack of monthly bills.

Find out: 5 Things That Can Happen When You Don’t Pay Medical Bills

What are my options for paying off medical debt?

If you’re facing a bone-crushing stack of medical bills, the debt may seem so overwhelming that you feel like you’ll never dig your way out. But don’t get discouraged. You’re far from alone with your medical debt dilemma. In fact, 50 percent of Americans said they have medical debt, according to a 2021 Debt.com survey.

Here are some options to consider when it comes to tackling medical debt.

Find out: Start Paying Down Medical Bills in 5 Steps

Negotiate a payment plan or settlement

Hospitals, doctors and other health care providers may be willing to work with you to create an affordable  payment plan so you can pay off the debt gradually, often without paying interest. You may also be able to negotiate paying a lump settlement for an amount that’s lower than what you owe if you can pay that amount right away.

Find out: What Happens if You Don’t Pay Medical Debt?

Use a 0 percent APR credit card

Many credit cards offer an introductory 0 percent APR that allows you to avoid paying interest on the balance for a year, 18 months or even longer. If you’ve already paid medical bills with a credit card, consider applying for a new credit card with a 0 percent intro APR. That way, you can transfer balances and avoid paying hundreds of dollars in interest.

The new card will likely charge a fee of three percent to five percent on the balance transferred. For example, if you transfer a credit card balance of $2,000 to a card with a balance transfer fee of three percent, the fee would be $60. Even with that fee, however, you may still come out ahead with interest savings.

If you go this route, make sure you never pay late or miss a payment. Otherwise, the issuer may cancel out the 0 percent APR terms and raise the interest rate significantly.

Find out: Do Medical Bills Affect Your Credit?

Meet with a credit counselor

A credit counselor at a no-fee or nominal-fee nonprofit credit counseling agency can help you find wiggle room in your budget for medical bill payments. The counselor might also help with negotiating a payment plan with the hospital or doctor’s office.

Find out: How to Deal With Medical Debt in Collections

Take out a personal loan

While taking on more debt to pay the debt you owe shouldn’t probably be your first choice, consolidating your debt could work in some cases.

“If there are gaps between what you owe, what insurance will cover and what’s left in savings, turning to a personal loan might allow someone to pay off medical debt or other expenses in one lump sum with a lower interest rate than other financial vehicles and without hidden fees,” says Lattman.

Find out: 5 Things That Can Cause You to Overpay Your Medical Bills – and How to Avoid Them

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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