First Person: Setting Up Payment Plans for Medical Expenses

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First Person: Employee Reimbursement Guidelines and Rules

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My family routinely incurs large medical expenses. I have ulcerative colitis—a type of inflammatory bowel disease—and my wife suffers from thyroid imbalances as well as other health problems. In addition to regular doctor's visits and prescriptions, we also have to pay for occasional tests and procedures, some of which run in the thousands of dollars. Consequently, I have a lot of experience setting up payment plans for medical expenses.

Not Always Obvious

The first thing I learned about payment plans is that they aren't advertised. Most health professionals and facilities don't mention payment plans or installment agreements to patients. I discovered that unless I specifically asked for one, I would never know it was possible.

It is also important to realize that most medical institutions have strict rules about the conditions under which a payment plan can be arranged. In many cases, they require patients to request payment plans for medical expenses before any treatment is rendered. I never wait until after I've taken the test or seen the doctor to discuss installment agreements or other arrangements; I make sure to bring it up right away.

This is a great way to search for medical providers. Before I see a new doctor or visit a new facility, I ask whether payment plans are feasible. If not, I cross them off the list and call someone new. This way, I don't go to the trouble of making appointments and visiting clinics only to have to walk away.

Different Providers, Different Arrangements

Sorting through medical bills can be frustrating, especially when different providers handle different aspects of your treatment. A simple visit to the doctor can result in multiple bills. For example, if I have blood work done with my GP, I get a bill from the lab as well as from my physician.

This often means making multiple calls and appointments to arrange different payment plans. Fortunately, radiologists, labs, and other providers have always been willing to work with me because by asking for a payment plan, I'm declaring my intent to give them what they are owed.

Since I am self-employed, I don't have employer-sponsored insurance but a private medical insurance policy. I've learned that when I make appointments or schedule tests, I need to make sure the providers are all covered on my insurance plan. If they aren't, I ask for new referrals so I can keep my costs low. If I didn't do this, I might wind up paying thousands more than I would otherwise.

Communication Eases the Burden

The most important thing I've learned about setting up payment plans for medical expenses is that it's necessary to keep in contact with the people I owe. If I simply ignore a bill (or if it slips through the cracks in my filing system and I forget about it), the medical service providers are much less willing to work with me.

If, however, I explain my financial situation and let them know I can't pay the entire bill at once, they are usually much easier to deal with. Many people struggle under the weight of formidable medical bills, and the service providers know this. They are more concerned with getting paid at all than getting paid right away.

Keeping Notes

I maintain a notebook with information on all medical professionals I've seen over the last decade. Each time I visit a new physician or facility, I make a few notes about my experience with them and how their payment policies work. This helps me make practical decisions about my medical appointments going forward.

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