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Taking Care of Medical Debt

Getting sick or having a major medical condition is awful, but many people who’ve been in that situation say that the bills that follow a major illness or injury are just as bad.  In fact, these can pile so high that they feel like another injury in addition to the original one.  Some patients find that the stress that comes from trying to figure out how to pay for their illness makes them sick all over again.

While most people have health insurance of some sort, many only find out that theirs is not as good as they’d hoped after they’ve already been in the hospital or racked up many bills another way. That’s part of the healthcare crisis in the United States, because being under-insured could be as bad (or worse, sometimes) than not being insured at all.

Planning for emergency expenses is always the best way to avoid the situation altogether.  But even the most conservative budget ninja could find herself in a medical situation that requires large amounts of money.  If you find yourself in a situation where you owe more in medical bills than you can pay, don’t let the stress overwhelm you. Instead, take a deep breath, assess your situation, and follow the steps below.

1. Talk to the People You Owe

Before you do anything else, call the hospitals and other companies that you owe money to. Let them know your situation, and explain that you cannot pay the full amount. Be ready to demonstrate how much you make and the total of your monthly expenses, as they might need these before they can negotiate with you.

Note that making this call may have a different effect with different companies. Some are happy to work with you, and in fact reduce bills routinely for patients who cannot pay the full amount. Others may be more difficult, or may not have a standard procedure in place to deal with your situation. Give them the benefit of the doubt, though, and you may find your bills reduced drastically.

2. Find Out if There’s Public Assistance Available

This can vary widely based on the state you live in and even where in each state you live. However, there are many public assistance programs geared toward helping people pay off medical debt that they cannot pay themselves. Check with your hospital and other government agencies to see what’s offered in your area and what you need to do to qualify for it.

When exploring this option, be extremely careful not to go with scammers.   If you use your favorite search engine for words like “debt relief” or “medical debt program”, you will find hundreds of for-profit businesses, some of them not very ethical, that are only looking to make a buck off of you.   Look for non-for-profit organizations or foundations driven by ethical or religious motives such as the Neighborhood Health Initiative (NHI) in Des Moines as featured by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

3. Start Making Payments

Even if you cannot pay off all of your debt, start making monthly payments towards it. Ten dollars a month may not sound like much to you, and it may not be more than a drop in the bucket of what you owe, but paying it each month demonstrates your goodwill to the company you owe.

In some states, companies to whom you owe medical debt cannot pursue you for the balance as long as you’re making monthly payments.  Laws on this issue can be complicated and will vary widely by state, but it’s worth looking into if you find yourself in a difficult situation.

Another option is to use a service that allows you to delay payments for a month for a fee such as   This helps you delay your payments for a short time period to help you get your numbers in order.

4. Look at Getting a Personal Loan


Going into more debt in order to pay off debt may not make much sense the first time you think about it. However, securing a personal loan for the medical balance that you owe to medical companies may give you a chance to pay your bills, get the company or the debt collection they reported you to off your back, and let you make payments that you can afford.

Some lenders may also be more likely to give you a personal loan if they know the situation behind your debt. While you don’t want to manipulate anyone, simply stating why you need the money can let them know that you are a responsible person who pays your debts, even if you’re currently in a bad situation.

However you manage to take care of your medical debt, don’t just ignore it. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, especially if you’re still recovering from the illness or injury that caused the debt in the first place. Medical debt won’t go away on it’s own, though, and it’s usually easier to deal with it before you’re reported to a collections agency. So take a deep breath and get started today. The sooner you find a solution, the sooner you can stop worrying about it.

Image courtesy of Brooks Elliot.

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