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4 tips to keep medical debt from overwhelming you

Even for those with health insurance, a visit to the hospital can be financially devastating.

According to a 2016 report by Kaiser Family Foundation, one in five insured working-age Americans reported having problems paying medical bills in the previous year that often cause serious financial challenges. According to another Kaiser study from 2017, 43% of adults with health insurance say they have difficulty affording their deductible, and roughly a third say they have trouble affording their premiums and other cost sharing.

Oftentimes when you come home from the hospital, another ordeal begins: the bills come, sometimes from different departments and different doctors.

The good (or bad) news is that you’re not alone. According to Consumer Financial Protection Bureau data, 43 million Americans owe medical debt. Making heads or tails of the medical bills can be even more intimidating than going to get a check-up in the first place.

Here are four ways to make your medical debt manageable. But before you read these tips: if you are having a medical emergency, seek treatment immediately. Don’t let the prospect of medical debt stop you from getting the help you need.

Negotiate your bill

All medical bills are negotiable. Emergency room bills, bloodwork bills, biopsy bills, X-ray bills, all of them. If you can, find out exactly what procedures you’re going to have done beforehand and research the average cost. Bruce McClary of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling suggests the Healthcare Blue Book.

Search for your procedure, test or doctor visit, find the average cost and then call the doctor’s office and ask what they charge. If they’re charging you below the average, you probably won’t have much wiggle room, but if they’re charging you more, ask them if they can bring the price down to a more reasonable range.

Don’t worry if you can’t do this before you get care. Life happens. You can negotiate after you’ve gotten the bill, but don’t put it off.

Set up a payment plan

If you get a huge hospital bill for tens of thousands of dollars, you might freak out wondering how you’ll ever pay it. Even if you have a hefty emergency fund, a $20,000-plus medical bill can shock you.

After you’ve negotiated your bill down — or at least tried to — ask your doctor’s billing office to set up a payment plan. Doctors’ offices know most people can’t handle big expenses at a moment’s notice and are usually willing to work with you.

“They want to get paid, obviously, but they also want to make sure that they’re doing something that’s affordable for you,” said McClary.

But be careful when setting one up. If someone tries to steer you toward a financing service, where you take out a loan or open a medical credit card, don’t let them. Installment payments to doctors are interest-free, but loans are not.

“That’s the last thing you want to do,” said McClary.

Ask for help

There are nonprofits and charitable organizations out there that can help you pay for medical expenses if you can’t on your own. Your local church, mosque or synagogue might have their own resources available to you or could know of other organizations.

“Have conversations with the medical care provider because they are probably more aware of a lot of those resources than anybody else,” said McClary. “They probably deal with other patients in the same situation that you’re in.”

Don’t lose focus on other obligations

“Medical debt doesn’t live in a bubble,” said McClary.

You probably owe student loan debt, maybe a mortgage or a car payment, and some credit card debt, and those all have their own financial obligations. Try not to let your medical bills get in the way of paying off other things. Look at your budget, and try to find a payment plan with your doctor that won’t throw things way off track.