Medical debt is any amount of money owed after receiving medical services or goods. This debt may include bills that are not yet past due as well as accounts that have been sent to collections.
Medical debt can happen to anyone. In general, health care is expensive in America. Additionally, emergencies arise and the average visit to the emergency room costs $1,200 to $1,300. There are also 133 million Americans living with at least one chronic health condition and many of these conditions are costly to prevent, diagnose, and treat.
And medical debt isn’t only a financial problem. It can actually cause even more health problems because people will then delay necessary medical care to avoid additional bills while developing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and insomnia due to the stress of looming expenses.
Medical bankruptcy is an unofficial term for bankruptcy due to medical debt. Most people in this situation file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, but experts advise that bankruptcy should be a last resort for medical debt. Other options, like payment plans, are a better bet to try first.
If you have medical debt, take a deep breath. You’re not alone (more on that in a second) and there are some good, free options that can help you get out from under it.
How to get rid of medical debt
Here are some options for getting out of medical debt:
- Medical debt forgiveness programs: Medical debt forgiveness is based on the size of your household, income, and other factors. Although it’s unlikely that your entire debt will be forgiven, many hospitals and healthcare providers will work with you to reduce your debt by negotiating lower bills, setting up a payment plan (see #3), or connecting you with assistance. You’ll still have to pay something, but you may be able to negotiate a lower amount on a timeline that works better for you. Each state has its own assistance programs based on income, so to learn more, check out hospital policy for your state at the National Consumer Law Center. And beware of services that say they’ll help you but may actually end up costing you even more money! According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, working with debt settlement companies can be risky, due to fees charged and other disadvantages, so it’s best to work directly with your hospitals and healthcare providers.
- Nonprofit/financial assistance organizations: Many of these organizations can help provide financial assistance with medical bills. You can look into grants and financial assistance programs through hospitals or organizations like the Patient Access Network Foundation, HealthWell Foundation, or Samaritan Health Services. Veterans can check with their local Veterans Affairs (VA) office for available resources.
- Payment plans: Ask your doctor’s office or hospital if they can set up a payment plan with no (or very low) interest. Often, they can work with you to set up a monthly payment that you can afford.
- Local resources: You can inquire with local organizations such as your town’s health department, social services, or religious groups to learn about available medical debt relief programs near you.
- Charity care: Charity care provides free or discounted medical services to patients who meet the organization’s eligibility criteria for assistance and are unable to pay. You may qualify even if you have health insurance! Government regulations ensure that nonprofit hospitals must provide some level of charity care. Check with your hospital’s social worker or billing department.
- Credit counseling: You can reach out to a debt counselor from a nonprofit organization such as the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC). A certified credit counselor can offer a confidential consultation, review your finances and budget, and help you create a financial action plan.
- Call 211: 211 is a 24/7 resource connecting millions of people with local assistance, including health care and insurance help. Last year, 211 responded to more than 1.6 million requests for healthcare resources.
How to avoid medical debt
Here are some ways to avoid getting into medical debt, which can result in lower up-front costs and result in fewer bills later on:
- Choose in-network providers when you can. Staying within your insurance plan’s network of providers ensures that you receive the most cost-effective care.
- Communicate with your healthcare providers. Many patients have difficulty affording certain services, and your provider may know of local resources that can help. Your provider would rather you be upfront so they can help you feel your best with minimal financial stress.
- Know when to go to urgent care versus the emergency room. Always go to the emergency room for a life-threatening emergency. By law, anyone with an emergency must be treated or stabilized regardless of financial status. However, if your condition does not require emergency care, try an urgent care center.
- Do your homework. Search the National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics to find affordable medical care near you.
- Don’t accept the medical bill as gospel. Review all medical bills and be sure to ask questions if something seems off. Almost 80% of medical bills can contain errors.
- Check to see if you qualify for Medicaid. If your income is below a certain level, you may be eligible for this government-funded health insurance program that provides free or low-cost health coverage.
- Review your health plan’s changes during open enrollment. Costs and coverage change year-over-year, so make sure your plan still meets your needs.
- Ask for a generic version of your medication. Not only are generic drugs much more likely to be covered by insurance, but they can also cost up to 80% less than their brand-name counterparts. Take the popular thyroid medication Synthroid for example. Brand-name Synthroid costs $71 per 30, 50 mcg tablets whereas generic levothyroxine costs $23 per 30, 50 mcg tablets.
- Use a free prescription discount card. You can tap into some major savings at the pharmacy counter by using the free WorkMoney SingleCare discount card. You can save up to 80% on prescriptions just by showing your pharmacist this coupon – and it works whether or not you have insurance!
How common is medical debt?
Remember when we said you weren’t alone? Medical debt is extremely common among Americans.
These statistics tell a story of how big of a problem medical debt is:
- Nearly 1 in 10 adults (or 23 million people) owe medical debt.
- Almost half of American adults report difficulty paying medical bills.
- Americans owe at least $195 billion in medical debt.
- Doctor visits and diagnostic tests are the most common causes of medical debt.