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4 Ways to Get Help Paying Your Medical Bills

How to spot errors, secure discounts and hire a patient advocate


(This article originally appeared on Nerdwallet.com.)

If you need help paying your medical bills, you’re not alone. With nearly 2 million people living in households that file for bankruptcy because of medical bills each year, even insured Americans can find themselves up to their ears in medical debt.

Accidents and chronic illnesses can be impossible to anticipate, and costly surgeries and hospital stays can quickly drain emergency funds. Before resorting to bankruptcy, explore these options:

Review the Items on Your Medical Bills

Before making payments, make sure all the charges on your medical bill are legitimate. Request an itemized receipt from the billing department and review each expense so you understand how your costs break down.

(MORE: 8 Medical Bill Errors to Watch For)

Mistakes are surprisingly common; in 2011, the nonprofit research group Access Project estimated that eight out of 10 medical bills contain errors.

Wondering about a certain charge? Ask questions. Hospital bills are known for their jargon, and you might be paying more than you need to for basic amenities, such as bandages or tissues, just because you don’t understand the wording.

If the receipt includes unnecessarily duplicated procedures — for instance, if you were charged for two CT scans when only one was performed — dispute the additional fee.

(MORE: Medical Bills: Even Worse Than You Thought)

Ask for Discounts

Many health care providers are willing to provide discounts to patients who are struggling with paying their medical bills because they would much rather cut you a deal than have you not pay your bill at all. For hospitals and patients, this is a win-win situation: Patients can settle their medical bills without declaring bankruptcy, and hospitals can recover part of their costs.

Speak up if you need help. While nonprofit hospitals will likely inform patients about the availability of charity care, other hospitals might not supply the information unless prompted.

(MORE: 6 Ways to Negotiate Lower Doctor Bills)

Seek Help from Nonprofits and Government Sources

Hundreds of organizations and government programs provide aid for people who are struggling financially, and several offer special help to people with certain medical conditions or disabilities.

Complete an anonymous questionnaire on Benefits.gov to find out which benefits you should apply for. Patients with low incomes or disabilities may also qualify for funding through Medicare or Medicaid.

Hire a Medical Billing Advocate

Still feel overwhelmed by medical debt? It’s time to call in the pros.

Medical billing advocates are professionals who can negotiate hospital bills on your behalf. Because most of them have backgrounds in health care, they’re often better equipped to identify billing errors and petition for discounts — and they know the right people to call at the hospital and insurance companies to get issues resolved.

Often, these advocates charge a 15 percent to 35 percent commission based on how much money they help you save, or ask to be paid by the hour. Because of the cost, it’s a good idea to turn to them for help after doing some preliminary self-advocacy and negotiation.

Bottom Line: Medical Debt Can Be Crippling

Bankruptcy isn’t the only thing indebted patients worry about. In some less-regulated states, those facing massive bills may also run into collection agencies, lawsuits, seized wages and ruined credit and liens because of unpaid medical bills. These financial troubles can have far-reaching consequences such as making it difficult for patients to find a place to live or get a job.

NerdWallet’s 3 Top Tips for Lowering Your Medical Bills

Claire Davidson writes about personal finance for Nerdwallet.com.

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