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Ask Chuck: Help for crazy medical bills

Ask Chuck your money question

Dear Chuck,

A friend from work is burdened with medical bills due to multiple emergency room visits with their young child. Their daughter is fine, but the bills have stressed them out. How can I help them?

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Crazy Medical Bills

Unsplash/Hush Naidoo
Unsplash/Hush Naidoo

Dear Crazy Medical Bills,

I am sorry to say that I hear this story far too often.  Unfortunately, the cost of healthcare in America is a serious burden for many.  According to a 2021 Census Bureau study, 19% of households could not cover medical care when needed. A Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report in 2022 revealed that when debt collectors contacted consumers, the reason was typically for medical debt. I will provide advice for you that you may pass on to your distressed friends.

The big picture

In February of 2022, a survey of 1,250 American adults by Affordable Health Insurance found that 56% have medical debt. Twenty-five percent owe $10,000 or more. Emergency room visits were a factor for 44% of Americans. One-third of those with medical debt say it is very unlikely that they will be able to pay off the debt in their lifetime.

More than half a million families seek bankruptcy protection from medical bills annually. But bankruptcy is not always the best choice for those seeking relief. It is very hard on your credit; Chapter 7 bankruptcy can remain on credit reports for up to ten years from the filing date, and Chapter 13 can remain for seven. Thankfully, medical debt is now being handled differently by major credit reporting agencies. Paid-off medical debt that was formerly in collections will not appear on reports. A one-year grace period is given before unpaid medical debt is listed, and debt less than $500 will not show up on credit reports.

Know your options

The number one source of medical debt is emergency room (ER) visits. The cost is high due to high-tech equipment and time-sensitive testing. You will pay more than if you went to an urgent care center or primary care physician. I recently took my wife to an urgent care center while we were on vacation, and it was much nicer than any hospital or doctor’s office that we have visited. The care she received was not substandard either.

ER visits average around $2,600 without insurance. But that varies depending on location, time of day, and severity of the condition. Prices typically run less in rural areas. Daytime visits cost less than nighttime visits due to the cost of staffing. The number of treatments, tests, and medications will naturally impact the total cost. The key is knowing your options for care before they become necessary.

Urgent care clinics are good for cases that are not emergencies but too distressing to make it through the weekend or overnight. Primary care physicians are best for non-life-threatening concerns. If they can’t help, they'll refer you to someone who can. Many provide call-in advice after hours. Telemedicine is the most economical option and is understandably surging in popularity. 

Cost of medication

A report from the Moran Company reveals that hospitals are charging an average of 500% of what they pay for medicines. One patient researched her costs and discovered a $700 charge for each push of an IV. The average cost at the time was $200. She found that a similar drug was available in tablet form for the price of a cup of coffee!

Always ask for generic drugs if you need a prescription filled. See if the doctor can provide samples. Ask what discounts the pharmacy can provide.

Learn to advocate for yourself and your family. Upon receiving a hospital bill, do not rush to pay it. Instead, plan to negotiate a lower bill or a reasonable payment plan. You, however, must come prepared to defend yourself with records and solutions.

Negotiate for lower bills

Here’s how to lower your bill:

  • Verify the accuracy of your bill. A majority contain errors or overcharges.
  • Get copies of the hospital records and study each bill closely.
  • Look for any errors: duplications, incorrect codes, and charges for unused services.
  • If you have insurance, make sure claims were correctly filed.
  • If a claim was denied, find out why. If it should have been covered, ask the hospital to resubmit the claim or appeal the denial with your insurance provider.
  • Check or for fair pricing.
  • Arrange a meeting with the hospital or medical provider-patient advocate.
  • Ask for a discount based on your age or income.
  • Learn about payment plans and avoid paying interest.
  • Ask what kind of discount is available if you are able to pay the entire bill upfront.

Expect to spend some time in the process. Always conduct yourself as an ambassador of Christ. Be winsome in your communication and glorify God in all that you say and do. If you are unable to get satisfactory answers, keep trying.

Medical costs are crazy expensive. So, pray for good health, know your options in advance of the need, and work toward avoiding high-cost care.

If credit card debt is a burden, Christian Credit Counselors is a trusted source of help for a debt management plan. They can help you get on the road to financial freedom.

Chuck Bentley is CEO of Crown Financial Ministries, a global Christian ministry, founded by the late Larry Burkett. He is the host of a daily radio broadcast, My MoneyLife, featured on more than 1,000 Christian Music and Talk stations in the U.S., and author of his most recent book, Economic Evidence for God?. Be sure to follow Crown on Facebook.

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