What to do when you cannot pay your medical bills

Affordable Care Act or not, Americans of every age are having a harder time paying for medical bills. A report issued in 2013 by NerdWallet Health estimated that 56 million Americans under age 65 had trouble paying medical bills. More than 15 million people between the ages of 19 and 64 would use up all savings to pay medical bills, 11 million would accumulate credit card debt, and nearly 10 million would be unable to pay for necessities (food, rent, heat) because of medical bills.

If you can’t pay all your medical bills, you aren’t alone. Review these do’s and don’ts for how best to handle the situation.


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  • take a critical eye to the budget
  • look carefully at your assets
  • look for rejection of individual items on a claim
  • explain extenuating circumstances
  • proactively seek out financial assistance

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  • assume that you’re in the clear if you have insurance
  • pay bills blindly
  • jump to bankruptcy
  • act rashly
  • be shy

Kevin Gallegos‘s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do take a critical eye to the budget

Look at your budget as objectively as possible to identify expenses you could cut. (Don’t have a budget? This is the time to learn to create and use a simple one!) Could you live without stopping for a latte? Can you get by without cable television? Could you make a commitment to eat dinners at home, and bring your lunch to work?

Do look carefully at your assets

It may be very difficult, but you may be able to sell some or draw from if needed. Think about valuables (collectibles, jewelry, cars, real estate), savings accounts or possibly even retirement accounts.

Do look for rejection of individual items on a claim

Insurance companies sometimes reject parts of a claim. If you come across this, make sure to check it against your policy. If it seems incorrect, you can bring this to the attention of the insurer and/or provider. Sometimes, providers can resubmit claims to the insurance company with explanations of services, or with a different billing code.

Do explain extenuating circumstances

If medical problems have affected your ability to work – and income and ability to pay your medical bills – contact the billing departments of doctors’ offices, hospital administrators and other providers when bills start to arrive. Explain your situation, and ask about payment options. It may be possible, for instance, to defer payments for a certain number of months or to negotiate an interest-free payment plan.

Do proactively seek out financial assistance

Medical billing advocates may be able to help decipher complicated bills, negotiate and work with insurance companies. These experts in medical billing typically charge a percent of the savings they obtain for you. Also, consider contacting charitable foundations, churches, community groups and government agencies that may provide short- or long-term financial relief. Some hospitals are required by state law to provide free or reduced services (called charity care) to low-income patients. Ask if you’re eligible.

Kevin Gallegos‘s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not assume that you’re in the clear if you have insurance

The same report cited above found that 10 million insured Americans adults under the age of 65 will receive medical bills they can’t pay. Insurance is critical, and can make a huge difference. But policies are all different, and many have exclusions and limits on what they cover and don’t cover.

Do not pay bills blindly

Up to 80 percent of large medical bills contain errors. Look over each explanation of benefits (“EOB”) you receive from health insurers carefully. Check especially for any large charges that don’t make sense, for any duplicate charges, and for services you did not obtain. Compare bills you receive to the corresponding EOBs. It can be helpful to have your health insurance policy available for reference as you review information. If you any questions, contact the provider’s billing department or your insurance company right away. And if you receive a statement that contains only a lump sum, ask the provider to send you an itemized statement; do not pay the lump-sum charge.

Do not jump to bankruptcy

Health care has become the primary cause of bankruptcy, and bankruptcies resulting from medical debt impact almost nearly 2 million people annually. But it’s not a panacea. Bankruptcy can be expensive and painful, and it destroys a credit rating for many years. Instead, check out alternatives. Debt negotiation (settlement) may be an option. Debt settlement businesses, now working under FTC guidelines, work on a consumer’s behalf to lower the principal balances they owe.

Do not act rashly

It is not a good idea to take out an additional mortgage on your home to pay medical bills. If you fall behind in payments, you could end up losing it. Also, try not to use credit cards to pay medical bills (unless you can pay off the balance in full at the end of each month). The interest rates and fees will just add to your debt.

Do not be shy

Hospitals and insurance companies typically have case workers on staff who can work with you to help make sense of paperwork. They will help you understand bills and estimate costs, and work with you to see if there are ways to set up alternative payment structures.


By managing the situation carefully, and taking proactive steps, it is possible to pay down medical debt. Use all of these steps to start resolving your situation.

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