You’re young. You’re healthy. And then out of nowhere you’re faced with a medical emergency, spend some time in the hospital and are now forced with astronomical medical bills to pay.
First things first: don’t get discouraged. It would be easy to stash away your medical bills in a drawer, or sit them far back on a shelf to collect dust, but the fact is that these bills won’t disappear. And most importantly, you are much, much more likely to receive financial assistance if you work with the provider before the bill is sent to a collection agency.
Luckily, there are many steps that you can take to help your situation and potentially even lower your outstanding bills!
Step One: Write a Letter of Distress to the Provider
It’s important to keep in mind that hospitals are well aware that paying medical bills without insurance can be extremely difficult, so generally they will work with you to find a reasonable way to help you pay off your debt, and can even help lower the overall amount that you owe. Of course all of these great things can’t happen if you don’t ask. This where a letter of distress can help save the day.
If you genuinely have no means to pay the medical bills that you now owe, it would be in your best interest to write a letter to the provider letting them know of your situation and your inability to pay. Be sure to include the fact that you are an international student, unfamiliar with the US healthcare system, and any additional information that could help your case. Depending on the amount owed and your personal situation, a provider may write off a good portion, specific services, or even your entire bill! If you don’t receive a response to your letter within a few weeks, be sure to follow-up with a phone call to reconfirm your situation.Of course this isn’t a guarantee, but it’s worth your time to try!
Tip: At the end of the day, it’s important to keep in mind that hospitals are still businesses and they want to be paid for their services – even if it’s not the whole amount that is owed.
Step Two: Ensure that your Bills Are Correct
This step can be time consuming, but it’s worth every moment. It’s especially important to check your bills if you spent a long period in the hospital or had a complicated procedure, as it is possible that a portion of the bill that you’ve received isn’t right. The most common errors tend to be that you’ve been billed for services or medications that you didn’t actually receive. Take into consideration the time that you stayed in the hospital as well. Sometimes if you’ve checked out in the morning you could have been charged for a full day, adding thousands of dollars to your bill.
Tip: According to the Medical Billing Advocates of America, eight in 10 hospital bills include mistakes.
Step Three: Prepare to Negotiate
It’s important to note that the US healthcare system is setup for individuals to have health insurance. Without insurance you will be paying a substantial amount more for the medical treatment that you receive, compared to someone who does have insurance and receives deep in-network discounts. If a letter of distress to the provider doesn’t lower your bill enough, or at all,, the next step is to try to negotiate.
As mentioned before, providers want to get paid – even if they don’t receive as much as they’ve billed you for, so you likely have some room to negotiate at least a small portion of the amount that you owe. In order to do so, it’s important that you are armed with information to help your cause. Check nearby hospitals to discern how much they would have charged for the procedure that you had. If the provider that you visited is charging grossly more, this could be a good negotiating point!
Step Four: Set Up a Payment Plan
Regardless if you were able to negotiate a lower overall balance or not, providers know that a huge medical bill broken down into small, manageable payments is much more likely to be paid off, so call the provider and ask if they can set up an interest free payment plan. It’s important to speak to the right person and let them know of your situation, and that you’re trying to pay off your debt but lack the income to do so right away.
Tip: Keep in mind that someone who is simply sympathetic to your situation can’t help you – be sure to speak to someone higher up in the billing department directly for the most assistance.
The bottom line is that medical emergencies are never planned, but are always costly. Luckily for you, there are countless resources available to help you negotiate and even lower your bill, as well as set up payment plans. Don’t let your bills overwhelm you. As dim as the situation may seem, you can work your way out of it!