What to do when your medical bills hit the emergency stage

Paying for a Medical Emergency

by Shaunna Privratsky

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It is becoming all too common. A patient is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, undergoes treatment and hospitalization, and then realizes his insurance won't even make a dent in the enormous medical bills. Mounting medical bills can quickly lead to financial ruin.

Just a few days in the hospital can cost more than $50,000. Even if you have good health insurance that covers 80% of the costs, the remaining 20% is staggering for an average family's income. Sadly, many people cannot afford health insurance or can only afford the cheapest plans that do not cover catastrophic illnesses or even extended stays in the hospital.

More people than ever are being devastated by the crushing weight of medical bills. The New York-based, nonprofit Commonwealth Fund estimated a third of all working-age Americans are struggling to pay medical bills. With costs rising, the problem is only getting worse.

Hospitals aggressively pursue payments, because more and more patients are unable to pay. There is hope. You have to take charge of your situation.

The first step is to ask for help. Apply for charity help and provide proof of wages. A good place to start is the nonprofit Patient Advocate Foundation. They work with the hospital's billing department to get the bills reduced or forgiven. Also, they can help you appoint a patient advocate, someone who will go to bat for you when you are unable to do it yourself.

It is important to have support, because you should be concentrating on recovery, not fighting with bill collectors or worrying about bankruptcy. You can also request an advocate through your local social services agency.

Also apply for public aid like Medicaid or Medicare, government programs that are based on income and hardship circumstances. Medicare is typically for older patients or people who have been permanently disabled for more than two years.

The nonprofit agency American Cancer Society provides referrals to advocates and agencies in your area. Ask if they charge a fee or a percentage of the debt reduction or if their services are free.

Another important step is to get an itemized copy of your bill. Make sure there are no errors, double billing, or overcharges. If you were charged $20 for two Tylenols, negotiate. Or if a can of soda was billed at $75 instead of 75 cents, dispute it. This actually happened to my husband when he was hospitalized for eight weeks.

Related: When You Can't Pay the Emergency Room Bill

A common error is overcharging for operating room time. Often the time is billed at a standard rate, but maybe your operation only lasted two hours, instead of the usual six. Most bills contain errors that can add up to hundreds of dollars.

Also request a copy of your insurance policy and question any denials. You have a small window to appeal decisions, usually thirty to sixty days. Denials can often be reversed or modified in your favor. Get your doctors on board by asking them for a letter stating the necessity of your treatment and explaining any procedures that were initially denied by your insurance.

What if the bills are still too high, even after being whittled down? Let the billing department know your situation. Many hospitals will take 10% to 15% off bills that patients are unable to pay or set up affordable monthly payments. The hospital would rather be paid $50 a month than not at all.

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Look for other avenues to help defray your remaining costs. Hold a yard sale and have posters stating the medical needs the money is going towards. The community often rallies around families that are devastated by medical bills. Fundraisers can be set up through church organizations, local businesses, or charities and can bring in thousands of dollars.

Word of mouth and lots of advertising help make a fundraiser a success. Live radio broadcasts are popular, as are billboard signs showing the goal and progress. People want to help if they know someone is in need. Many cities have resources for setting up various fundraisers like dances, pancake feeds, a spaghetti supper, silent auctions, barbecues, golf tournaments, church potlucks, or benefit concerts.

We have access to some of the most advanced medical treatments in the world. You can triumph over your illness and overcome mounting medical bills.

Reviewed April 2017

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