Six in 10 Americans have been in debt due to medical bills, according to a recent LendingTree survey of more than 1,500 Americans. On average, those with medical debt owe anywhere from $5,000 to nearly $10,000.
"Medical debt is such a hard thing because most of us weren't trained to read medical bills," says Winnie Sun, co-founder of Sun Group Wealth Partners in Irvine, California. It can be difficult to tell if you're being billed accurately, and if you are responsible for payment rather than your insurer.
It can also be difficult to know if you need to pay the exact amount on the bill: "People often don't realize that medical bills are negotiable," says Sun.
Here are a few steps experts recommend taking to avoid damage to your credit score if you have medical debt.
Before paying off medical debt, make sure it's accurate, says Ted Rossman, senior industry analyst at Bankrate: "There's tons of medical billing errors." For example, "maybe you go for your annual physical and it should be included for free under the Affordable Care Act and they try to bill you and then months later you get this $40 copay bill," he says. "God forbid something like that ends up hurting your credit."
Ask your health-care provider for a itemized bill and comb through it for any errors. You can compare the bill with your explanation of benefits from your insurance company to ensure what you're being billed for doesn't exceed what your insurance company says you owe.
If it is erroneous, "protest with your doctor's office or your insurance company," Rossman says.
If you do owe the amount the provider says you owe, and that total is more than you can afford, ask the hospital or doctor's office if you can set up a payment plan to keep the debt from going into collections. "Many doctors, hospitals, or dentists are surprisingly willing to work with you, and they can sometimes offer low or sometimes even no interest [payment plans] for lengthy periods of time," Rossman says.
If your debt is something you need to put on a credit card to pay off, Rossman recommends shopping around for a credit card with zero interest for the first 12-18 months. Some medical credit cards have very high interest rates, he says.
Negotiating your medical bills is often a viable option and can save you a lot of money. But it takes work.
"It's important to be firm and persistent. The squeaky wheel gets the grease," Rossman says. If you have an outstanding balance with a creditor, "let them know you're struggling," he suggests. The earlier you call, the more willing your biller will be when working out a payment plan. Sometimes they'll offer you a lower interest rate, or even lower your outstanding balance.
Video by Stephen Parkhurst
Jenifer Bosco, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, recommends negotiating by asking for a rate on the service or procedure that's closer to what the provider would accept from Medicare. "The hospital might not give them Medicare rates, but maybe they would do Medicare plus a certain percentage or something like that," she says.
"Practically speaking, [creditors or medical providers] would rather get something than nothing," Rossman says.
To get a handle on medical debt before it affects your credit score, experts suggest vigilantly checking your credit report for bills sent to collections.
John Ulzheimer, a credit expert who has worked for FICO and Equifax, recommends using annualcreditreport.com, which will give you a full picture of your debts. You can look regularly: Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, you're allowed to pull your report once a week through April of 2022.
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