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What To Do When You Can't Pay Your Medical Bills

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There's no doubt about it: Healthcare is expensive. Whether you have a high-deductible medical insurance plan or you don't have insurance at all, it's not uncommon to struggle with medical bills. In fact, over 20 percent of American adults have trouble paying off their doctor's bills, surgeries and other healthcare expenses. If you find yourself in the position of not being able to afford a bill from your doctor, a hospital or surgery center, there are some steps you can take to regain your financial footing.

Talk to the Doctor in Advance

Doctors do want to help their patients, and they might be able to work with you, even if the sign at the front desk says that payments must be made before service is provided. Particularly if you do not have health insurance, your doctor might be willing to lower prices or offer some type of payment plan. This can work for hospitals and surgery centers, as well, provided you know that you need treatment ahead of time. Ask to speak to the patient advocate in a hospital, as this is the person who is likely to know about all of the programs and discounts available.

Don't Forget About the Bill

If you receive a bill for several thousand dollars, it's tempting to stick it in a drawer (or the garbage can), since you can't pay it anyway. Ignoring the problem won't make it go away, however, and it might get you sent to collections. Call the medical provider to discuss a payment plan. You can often still negotiate the prices at this point; doctors do not want to deal with collection agencies any more than you do, as these agencies will take a portion of each payment you make.

When you call, let the billing coordinator know what you can comfortably pay each month, and see if they will agree to those terms. (Once you have an agreement, it's important to stick to it or to call back and explain the situation if you can't.)

Once a bill goes to collections, you can still attempt to negotiate with the bill collector. At this point, the debt will have affected your credit score, so it's best to get it taken care of as soon as you can.

Apply for Assistance

Hospitals often have charity funds that they might be able to apply to your bill, but they generally will not offer unless you ask. Be prepared to show your financial information when you apply; if it's clear that you can't pay the bill, all or part of it might be covered by their in-house assistance program.

You can also apply for Medicaid. In some cases, Medicaid will pay for medical work that you've already had done. There may also be local charities and programs that you may be eligible for. Talk to the patient advocate at your hospital, or, if the bills are not from the hospital, your local social services department.

Consider Bankruptcy

In 2013, three out of five bankruptcies were due to medical bills. If you find yourself unable to pay for past bills, a bankruptcy attorney may be just the person you need to get your finances back on track. There are different types of bankruptcy; in some cases, you may need to make payments to your debtors, and in other cases, claiming bankruptcy can wipe away your debt completely. A lawyer who specializes in this type of law will be able to help you decide which is the best course of action for you to take.

High medical bills can happen to anyone, and there should be no shame in reaching out to doctors and hospitals (and, if necessary, a bankruptcy lawyer) to help you decide what to do about owing large sums of money.