Medical Misery: How to Lower Your Expensive Healthcare Bills
Do you know what the most common reason Americans cite when filing for bankruptcy? I’ll give you a hint. It has nothing to do with poor money management skills, credit cards or job loss.
Unpaid medical bills will affect nearly 2 million people in this country-making it the number one reason Americans file for bankruptcy this year. Even if you have health insurance you can run into money troubles when it comes to medical bills. High deductibles, rising premiums, unforeseen out of pocket costs and denied claims can add up to thousands of dollars each year.
My husband and I faced unexpectedly high medical bills a few years ago. We were vacationing on the west coast of Florida when Mr. P woke me up with chest pains and shortness of breath-very scary symptoms I’m sure you can agree. We rushed over to the local hospital and the doctors there checked him over, running a gazillion tests and asking a bazillion questions.
When it was all said and done, the hubby was determined to have walking pneumonia. A virus that needed to be treated certainly, but it wasn’t the dire diagnosis we were afraid we were going to get.
Thankfully we were able to finish out our relaxing vacation and return home with happiness in our hearts. That euphoria lasted a few weeks until we got the bill from the hospital. $11,000! We were completely shocked. We had only spent a few hours at the facility and had no idea that we had run up such an astronomical bill!
It turns out that we had gone to a hospital that was out-of-network for our health plan. Our insurance company was refusing to pay many of the costs the hospital was charging and therefore passing the bill on to us.
I remember going through a gamut of emotions. First shock, then fear, then sadness and finally anger. I think it was the anger that got us working on finding ways to lower that bill. After a few tense months and some serious negotiations we got our medical bills lowered to $1100. While that amount is still a lot of money, it was a lot more manageable than the initial bill of $11,000!
Want to know my secret for negotiating away nearly $10,000 worth of bills?
Just ask. We negotiate over the price of cars, furniture, jewelry so why not medical costs? According to one study, 66 percent of people who negotiated medical bills with their doctors succeeded. The study also said that another 70 percent won after haggling with their hospitals.
Insurance companies are always negotiating rates with medical facilities, so why can’t you.
Negotiate Before You Need It
Before you ever have a medical test or procedure performed, ask your doctor what it’s going to cost you. Let your doctor know you are shopping around for the best price. Hospitals don’t tell patients that prices vary widely from provider to provider. One comment thread I came upon showed the cost of a knee surgery to be $43,000 at one hospital, while the hospital across town wanted to charge the same patient a whopping $142,000! That’s more than three times the price!
A great way to keep your medical bills down is to choose a medical facility that offers competitive pricing. Search for the average cost of the procedure or test you need done online. The Health Care Blue Book is a great reference for figuring out what you should pay. Then take this information with you to your doctor to help you negotiate a fair price.
Prescription prices vary widely from one pharmacy to another too, so be sure to shop around for prescription drugs. Call up several pharmacies close to your home and ask them for a pricing estimate on your prescriptions. This will save you from driving all over town to find the lowest price.
Attitude Is Everything
Like I said before I was really angry when I first saw our hospital bill. But thankfully I got my attitude in check before I called the hospital and my insurance provider. Lashing out and speaking in angry tones won’t get you a lower bill.
Only call when you have calmed down and can speak rationally. The first person you speak with will probably be a customer service representative or some low level employee from the billing department. They usually don’t have the authority to do anything so go up the chain of command and speak to someone who can, usually that’s an office manager or supervisor. Don’t be afraid to crack a joke or schmooze with your new buddy while discussing what you can do to lower your bill. Remember flattery will get you everywhere.
As soon as you receive a bill in the mail or become aware that you may have a hard time paying the bill, bring it up with your insurance company and treatment facility. You’ll have a lot less negotiating power if you wait until the bill is past due.
Throwing the bill in the trash will not make it go away. It can be tough dealing with paying the high costs of medical treatments on top of dealing with an illness or injury, but ignoring the bill will only make things worse. Start making calls as soon as possible and remember it’s not personal, it’s just business.
Demand an Itemized Bill
It’s estimated that as many as one in five people will receive an incorrect medical bill. In fact billing errors are becoming more and more common. A doctor may have ordered a test or treatment and then canceled it, but it still shows up on your bill. There might be unscrupulous overbilling going on by tacking on charges for treatments that you never received or for hospital stays on days you were elsewhere.
That’s why it’s important to insist upon getting a copy of your medical record after treatment and an itemized bill. This way you can go over the bill line by line and make sure the two documents match up. Dispute any inconsistencies and refuse to pay for any service, medication and materials that you didn’t use.
Cash Is King
Just like when you deal with car dealerships or furniture stores, when you say you will pay in cash, you often get a break on the price. The same goes for doctor’s offices and hospitals. Most of the time doctors and hospitals have to pay collection agencies to get patients to pay their bills. And once they do get payment its almost always by credit card, which charges the facility a processing fee of 1-2 percent of the total bill. If you offer to pay in cash, doctors and hospitals will almost always reduce the amount you owe by up to as much as 40 percent.
Get Professional Help
If you’re not comfortable negotiating or you’re not able to lower your bill on your own you can turn to a paid medical advocate. These professionals are used to dealing with hospitals, insurance providers and doctor’s offices as well as medical bills. They will scrutinize your bill for you and negotiate a lower rate for you.
The great thing about these advocates is that they don’t usually charge any up-front fees for their services. Instead they typically earn a percentage of what they save you.
While negotiating may not be your forte, remember that almost everyone will get a discount if they just ask for it.
Keeping Money in Your Pocket,