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7 Ways to Handle an Unexpected Medical Bill

Gerri Detweiler

If you have an accident or suddenly fall ill, recovering your health may be only half the battle. The medical bills you face can cripple your finances for years to come. And if a bill winds up in collections, it can hurt your credit scores for seven years.

Here are just a few examples our readers have shared on the Credit.com blog:

“…when I had my heart attack. $725 for the ambulance, a total bill of $97,750 for 2 and a half days in the hospital and two stents. Fortunately I had some coverage, and only have to pay 3k of it, which is still a crushing debt.”

“I was in a very serious car accident…which resulted in a hospital bill of $32,000.”

“I had an accident in Jan of 2012 and had to have surgery on my wrist and I had no medical insurance. The Dr. that I used charged me $2,345 for the surgery. There was later some other charges for x-rays and splints which made my total $2,798. The hospital, radiology and anesthesia were billed separately.”

What can you do if you receive an unexpected medical bill and don’t have the cash to cover it? Here are seven options.

1. Negotiate

If you can afford to pay some of the cost, but not all, you may be able to negotiate with your provider to settle the bill for less than the full amount owed. While it’s best to discuss discounts before a procedure if possible, plenty of patients end up working out something after the fact. Make sure you get the terms of the settlement in writing, and keep a copy of that letter for your records.

2. Ask for a payment plan

Find out if your medical provider will allow you to make monthly payments. While they aren’t obligated to do that, if they do, they probably won’t charge interest, making this one of the cheapest ways to pay off the debt over time. Just make certain you get any agreement in writing. If they won’t put it in writing, send them a letter (by certified mail) describing what they agreed to accept. Then stick to it, and contact the provider immediately if you will have trouble making a payment.

3. Get a medical credit card

If you can’t pay for a procedure that you need, your doctor, dentist or hospital may encourage you to apply for financing through a company that specializes in helping patients finance medical and dental procedures. Most of them offer a fairly generous interest-free financing period of 12 to 18 months. If you can pay off your medical debt during that time, one of these cards may be a decent option.

But beware the traps. Most of these cards carry very high interest rates. If you miss a payment, or can’t pay off the balance in full by the time the no interest promotional period ends, you may be assessed interest retroactively on the entire balance, not just the amount you didn’t pay off. For that reason, it’s extremely important to read the fine print and understand the cost of the card before you sign up.

4. Charge it

If you have a low-interest-rate credit card, you may want to charge your procedure. Before you do, though, take a hard look at how much you will have to pay to pay the balance off in three years or less (ideally). Also keep in mind that most credit cards carry variable interest rates, which means you may end up with a higher interest rate if interest rates generally start to rise.

5. Use a personal loan

A more attractive alternative to a credit card may be a personal loan. Some personal loans carry a fixed interest rate and a fixed monthly payment, which can be helpful for budgeting. You’ll know exactly how much you need to pay until the debt is paid off and won’t be caught by a surprise interest rate hike. A personal loan may also be better for your credit scores than maxing out a credit card.

6. Ask for help

If you are dealing with huge hospital bills, ask for a copy of the hospital’s financial assistance policy. If you are eligible, they may significantly reduce the bill. The hospital or provider may be able to refer you to other programs that can help, or you can consider starting a crowdfunding effort to raise money to cover the bills.

7. File for bankruptcy

A few days in the hospital can add up to tens — even hundreds — of thousands of dollars in medical debt. If the bills are so large that you can’t possibly pay them, despite your efforts to negotiate and work out a reasonable solution, you may need to talk with a bankruptcy attorney.

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