The only thing we can say with certainty about the future is that it is uncertain. No matter how guarded a life you may live, there will be surprised – both pleasant and unpleasant – along the way. One of the worst kinds of these surprises is the arrival of unforeseen medical emergencies. They not only impact your health and well-being but also have a detrimental effect on your finances and peace of mind. Depending on the ailment, it might take some time to heal the body, but it takes much longer to sort of the finances of the healthcare treatment, especially if you have borrowed money for the same.

However, what if you are unable to procure the funding for your treatment? What if, despite your best efforts, you cannot find a way to pay your medical bills? Moreover, what if, your treatment, or a part of it, has already been undertaken by a hospital or health centre?

In these situations, medical bills become medical debt and they can become problematic really soon. The relentless follow-up and hounding by hospital representatives might push you to borrow money at any cost and clear your debt, but that would create more problems than solving any. In this post, let’s take a closer look at medical debts and discuss a few ways in which they can be managed. 

What is medical debt?

Medical debt is a term given to the unpaid expenses that an individual occurs on medical and health-related procedures. This might include the cost of surgery, medicine, treatments for ailments and health care item purchases prescribed by the doctors. 

Medical debt is more common than you think, and there are several reasons why this debt piles up; rising healthcare costs being the foremost one. The insurance-driven healthcare system inflates prices for nominal surgeries, procedures and medicines, thus, making it tougher for people without insurance to pay for them. If they undertake the treatment and are unable to pay for it, their bills turn into debt.

Several instances, like an unforeseen injury, an accident, a heart attack or even a severe asthmatic attack can disrupt the delicate financial balance for those who live hand to mouth. Usually, people use their credit cards, borrow money from unofficial lenders at exorbitantly high rates or simply refuse to pay the bill citing lack of funds. 

Another way people incur medical debt is by letting it pile on. Small unpaid dues, over time, become a large amount, particularly in cases where regular treatment is required – say for an individual having cancer or on dialysis. If you find that you have also fallen into the trap of medical debt, read on to find out how you can begin to sort the situation and pave the way for a better future. 

What to do if you get a medical bill that you can’t pay?

Whenever a medical emergency hits a household, most other expenses take a hit. People usually avoid significant purchases and focus on simply getting by until the situation is resolved.

However, sometimes these situations last longer than expected or become permanent, thus, leaving no option, but to dig into savings or borrow in order to pending medical bills. There are, however, many systematic approaches in this situation, and steps that you can take to manage the debt effectively.

Here’s what to do whenever you find yourself unable to pay your medical bills:

  • Don’t ignore your bills

The first rule is never to ignore your bills. Ignoring your medical bills or leaving them for a later date means letting them pile up into an unmanageable mess. You would be taking a hit on your credit score while dealing with stress that was uncalled for. Keep track of the pending amount, pay the smaller ones if you can, and try to clear parts of them regularly so as to avoid interest. 

  • Check for administrative errors

The medical and healthcare industry involves as much administration and record-keeping as it does healing people. In some cases, due to the immense data involved, bills could have errors and could be generated erroneously. Thus, it is advisable that you check your bills for any discrepancies and tally the calculations in order to be sure of the final amount. If you come across any inconsistent amounts, be sure to report them immediately. You should, in such cases, take prompt actions and raise an issue about this with the insurers or the bill issuing authority to get the corrections done immediately.

  • Negotiate your bill

There is always an option to try and negotiate to get a reduction on your outstanding bills. It would be best if you spoke to your healthcare provider regarding the same as they have the authority to amend your bills. The possibilities might range from a flat discount to a one-time payment, to an interest-free payment plan. Be honest about your situation and convey your commitment to pay the bills but ask for adequate time. Do this as soon as you get your bill, and talk to the bill issuers in order to get a slight relief in repayment.

  • Don’t use credit cards to pay off your medical bills

Seemingly never-ending bills are sure to trouble you, but paying them off with a credit card is something that should be avoided at all costs. If you do so, you would just be pushing today’s problem to tomorrow, and also compounding it in the process. It might seem like a good idea at first, but the credit card loan doesn’t go off your back, and you accrue high-interest rates on the same. Thus, avoid this approach, and try to pay the bills in a different way, such as using part payments.

  • Get expert help

Some financial experts specialise in helping people manage their debts, and also particularly medical debts, effectively. You can use their services to find the best strategy for your situation and ask them for assistance in negotiating your bills. These experts, such as medical caseworkers or advocates, can then contact the medical care providers in order to get the amount lessened or to settle on a repayment plan that might be easier to pay, in order to help you effectively manage your finances without as much pressure.

  • Stay clear of collections

Never let your bill stay unpaid long enough to reach the collections department. If you delay the bills longer than the due date, you risk them being sent to the collections department for recovery. Collection department calls and visits can soon turn into a chaotic affair that can cause a lot of trouble and stress. Thus, know the dates and rules well enough to ensure that your case isn’t transferred to the collections department.

  • Take steps to prevent it the next time

The complexities and lack of transparency in the medical system make it tough to avoid large bills, and the best way to prevent the same is to be better prepared for the next time. Enroll for a comprehensive insurance plan, pay your premiums on time, find an affordable hospital and the cost of the procedure beforehand, plan your finances in advance and keep a fund for medical emergencies so as to prevent going through the harrowing experience again. 

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Other things to know about medical debt

There are a few other things to keep in mind, along with the points mentioned above. Medical debts are marked negatively marked on your credit report, thereby decreasing your credit score, causing a lasting impact on your creditworthiness. In many situations, such unpaid debts have even stopped people from accessing further medical care when required.

On the other hand, there are several trusts, organizations and government schemes for people who are unable to afford their medical bills. Make sure you thoroughly research such options to determine if you qualify for aid from these sources as well.  

If you’ve already incurred medical debt, work out a way to incorporate your medical bills into your monthly budget. Consider them like any other EMI, and you would find it easier to pay them off without ignoring them. It is also important to select your medical insurance carefully, be aware of all the benefits and the coverage your insurance policy is providing you, and make sure that you are billed correctly.

Medical debts are highly difficult to manage, regardless of how much you earn. However, following the steps mentioned above can help you manage them better and ensure that you focus on getting better as well. Being financially prepared for any medical emergency is the best way to tackle such a situation. Start saving money and set it aside for such medical treatments that you know aren’t going to be affordable.

Thus, if left unchecked, medical bills won’t take long to turn into medical debts. While it’s best to ensure that you don’t fall into this trap, sometimes, there really is no way to pay for the excessive medical bills and medicines. While it is challenging, it is not impossible to clear off your medical debts and prevent a medical emergency from turning into a financial emergency as well.