Negotiating Hospital Bills: How to Get a Medical Debt Repayment Plan

Katie McBeth  | 

Medical debt is a common concern across America. Even for those that are insured, massive hospital bills can always be a liability. Much of the problem lies in how much hospitals charge for their services to make up for the massive discount that is demanded by insurance companies. But when you’re suffering from a medical emergency it’s impossible to comparison shop to get the best deal!

Your health is important, and sometimes your finances might be in peril if your health is suffering. However, as tempting as it might be to pay your medical debt with a credit card or simply ignore the bills until they go to collections, there are better alternatives available. Almost every medical bill is negotiable: with both your insurance provider and the hospital that administered the care. All you have to do is ask either of them what payment plans, discounts, or other options they can offer you.

What is the best way to discover these alternatives and how can you know which one is right for your situation? Fiscal Tiger is here to walk you through the basics of repayment plans, and provide you with some helpful tips on how to avoid letting these bills slip through the cracks.

Keep Your Medical Bills Organized

One of the most common issues with medical billing is that many bills are wrought with errors. This can either be through duplicate orders, mistyped codes, canceled work, or charges for services that were never received. However, you won’t know if your bill is full of errors unless you receive an itemized copy. Most hospitals send out summary copies with only a total of what you owe, and you will have to specifically ask for the more detailed version.

So how can you avoid being inaccurately charged during a hospital stay? The first step is to review all your itemized bills and ensure that you understand them. Can you identify which services were offered to you, and are there any errors that seem really apparent to you? Keeping all your bills organized can help you better review your insurance claims, what you owe, and what you’ve already paid.

Additionally, record every interaction you have with the hospital’s billing department and your insurance provider. If you keep a log of all your calls — including the name of the person you spoke with, their location, a reference number, and the date of the call — you will be able to more accurately follow up when you need to, and will be better prepared to argue your case for financial assistance.

Apply for Financial Assistance Through the Hospital

One of the more unknown truths about medical billing is that many hospitals — non-profits in particular — offer financial assistance for patients that are unable to pay their large bills. Hospitals often lose some of their profit when they sell past-due accounts to collection agencies, so they are more comfortable working out options with patients than they are relying on collections.

Depending on your circumstances — such as your monthly gross income, insurance coverage, and Medicaid eligibility — hospitals will have a few options to help you pay off your large bills: bill reduction or forgiveness, and zero percent interest repayment plans.

Hospital Assistance for Uninsured Patients

Whether you made the personal decision to be uninsured or you are unable to receive insurance coverage for whatever reason, hospitals will want to work with you to figure out a solution. In fact, simply being uninsured can often guarantee you an automatic discount for some services, no matter what your income is.

However, going without insurance does have it’s own risks: including paying full-price for medical services and being charged a penalty during tax time every year you go without it.

Hospital Assistance for Insured Patients

Insurance doesn’t always equal a reasonable hospital bill. For those that have a high deductible health plan (HDHP) and an HSA, your insurance might only cover a fraction of the service, which could still leave you with a very large bill.

If this is the case, you could still qualify for financial assistance through the hospital. The biggest predictor for your qualification will lie in your overall gross income. The lower your income, and the higher your bill, the better your chances are for receiving assistance.

Ask to Set up a Payment Plan

As mentioned previously, hospitals are more interested in working with you than selling your account to a collections agency. That is why many hospitals offer low or zero interest repayment plans. That way you can pay off the bill slowly over time, and you won’t have to worry about paying more due to interest.

This is also why it is not a good idea to pay your large medical bills with a credit card: your interest rate on your credit card is not going to be as low as the hospital’s offer.

To find out how you can apply to financial assistance, simply call the number at the top of your medical bill, or search for “your hospital” and “payment assistance” to find the right department to contact. Once you apply for a payment plan, it can take some time for your information to be processed. Simply be patient, but check in regularly (about once every 2-3 weeks) to make sure you haven’t missed anything. Once you’ve been approved, you’ll be able to start paying down your bill without all the extra stress that comes with large unpaid bills.

Ask About Discounts

Bill forgiveness and reduction are also available, but can often be more difficult to acquire. Many hospitals will need to see proof of income or have you apply to Medicaid before they can approve anything. They will want to ensure that every avenue has been exhausted prior to determining eligibility.

However, getting a massive discount or forgiveness is not impossible. One commenter on Reddit from 2015 was able to negotiate a bill for $12,000 down to $1,500 simply by calling the hospital and sharing his concern. He was unemployed, his wife was suffering from terminal cancer, and he was unable to afford the massive bill. Luckily, the hospital was able to work with him and provide a 90 percent discount, simply because he asked.

It’s always worth asking what options there are and sharing your concerns. You never know what sort of discount you could receive.

Get Professional Help

Of course, navigating the world of medical billing can still be confusing and exhausting. If you’re not familiar with all the terms, coding, and options, it can be beyond stressful to try to negotiate with billing departments. Unfortunately, inaccuracies happen often enough that an entire industry was invented to investigate errors: medical billing advocates.

If you’ve found yourself stressed, confused, and at your wit’s end, it might be time to seek out professional help with these medical billing advocates. Many of them can offer a free consultation to let you know what they can do and if they can take on your case. They can help walk you through every step, and will be more familiar with the process and your options.

Putting Bills Behind You

Medical debt is a major pain point for at least a quarter of all Americans. Until healthcare becomes more affordable, it will continue to threaten the finances of anyone that is unfortunate enough to get in an accident or get a common cold. However, just because medical bills are so big, doesn’t mean you’re exempt from seeking out help.

Calling your hospital and discussing payment plans could help alleviate some of your medical debt, and could give you the opportunity to pay off your bill with little to no interest. Additionally, medical billing advocates exist for the sole purpose of helping you navigate your bill and find alternative ways to pay off your debt.

There are always options — even for those without insurance — and you don’t have let medical debt be an unresolved burden in your life.

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Katie McBeth is a researcher and writer out of Boise, ID, with experience in marketing for small businesses and management. Her favorite subject of study is millennials, and she has been featured on Fortune Magazine and the Quiet Revolution. She researches SEO strategies during the day, and freelances at night. You can follow her writing adventures on Instagram or Twitter: @ktmcbeth

This post was updated May 7, 2018. It was originally published November 16, 2017.