Director, Ohio Department of Aging
In these economic times, more Americans are struggling to pay their medical bills. We spend more on health care every year than we do educating our children, building roads or feeding ourselves. Americans’ medical costs reached an estimated $2.6 trillion, or around $8,300 per person, in 2009 according to AARP.
New York’s Commonwealth Fund reported that 72 million adults under age 65 had problems paying medical bills or were paying off medical debt in 2007, up from 58 million in 2005. Many had insurance and 39 percent said they had exhausted their savings paying for health care. Almost half (49 percent) of people facing foreclosure said medical bills were a cause of their financial problems.
Hospitals typically charge uninsured patients full price for care, which can be as much as five times higher than rates negotiated by insurance programs. But, medical debt affects not just the poor or the uninsured. Millions of Americans covered by health insurance are paying more for less. They receive fewer benefits, higher co-pays and additional deductibles and still are at risk for large out-of-pocket bills when serious illness or injury occurs.
Unlike other forms of debt, such as a mortgage or installment payments on a car, medical debt typically is unplanned. There is no time or opportunity for consumers to shop around for the best deal on a needed surgery or the cheapest hospital and, in many cases, treatment cannot be put off for a better time. Often, consumers are forced to make decisions at their most vulnerable time because they or a loved one is sick, injured or dying.
Consumers with unpaid bills can wind up in court defending themselves against lawsuits, find their wages garnished and have liens placed on their homes. People who charged medical expenses to a credit card can find that missed or late payments result in sharply increased interest rates and bad credit ratings.
Experts say there are things consumers can do to try to lessen the burden of medical costs:
Promptly review your bills. Make sure you’re not being billed twice for the same thing or paying a charge that should be covered by insurance. Billing errors are common, and patients are often stuck with charges that are not their responsibility.
Make sure you’ve exhausted all payment sources, including insurance from current or former employers or a former spouse’s policy.
If your income is low, you may be eligible for charity care, but some patients are not told they qualify until they ask.
If you don’t qualify, request a discount, such as the fee Medicare or Medicaid pays. This may be 50 percent lower than the price uninsured patients are charged. Many doctors and hospitals will negotiate and set up payment plans, sometimes with no interest.
Avoid using a credit card and do not mortgage your house to pay medical bills. Charging expenses to a credit card means you lose the ability to negotiate with a provider. Obtaining a second mortgage to pay medical bills could result in foreclosure if you fall behind.
Medical bills can seem overwhelming, but never ignore them or assume they will go away. They will not and failing to deal with them is likely to make matters worse.