9 Clever Strategies for Dealing with Medical Debt Without Losing Your Sanity

Medical debt can be stressful. Try to defuse your anxiety by using one of these strategies that may help calm debt worries.

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Updated May 28, 2024
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If you are worried about medical bills piling up, you are not alone. Debt can add emotional stress to those already struggling with health issues that need their attention. Bills can lead to real financial stress as well. In fact, 58.5% of respondents to a 2019 study published in the American Journal of Public Health said medical expenses contributed to their bankruptcy.

But there are ways — big and small — to gain control over your debt. Check out these strategies to see if one may help you resolve medical debt problems.

Look for mistakes in your bills

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Medical billing can be complicated for both the patient and provider. Sitting down and checking over each item in your bills could help you save money.

Medical Billing Advocates of America has estimated that three-quarters of medical bills contain some type of error. So, look at your bills and make sure items were charged correctly and are related to the medical procedure you received.

Major medical events such as surgeries can sometimes generate bills with high-priced mistakes. But even a routine exam in a doctor’s office can end up in unwarranted charges. Look for mistakes, including things like being charged twice for the same service.

Negotiate with your provider to pay less

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Some patients may not know that they can negotiate medical bills if they are having trouble paying them. In this situation, you might get the medical provider to agree to accept a payment lower than the total you owe. You may have a better outcome with this strategy if you proactively contact your provider before you miss payments.

Explain your hardships to the provider and see what kind of options they can provide to you, such as a reduced lump-sum payment.

Set up a payment plan

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Another option is to continue to try to pay your bill in full, but to negotiate a new payment plan with the provider. Some providers may prioritize receiving any payment from you, and may be willing to negotiate the timing of exactly when they receive the payment.

For example, ask the provider if you can pay off the bill in smaller installments. It may be easier to pay off debt in small bits instead of one big chunk. This way, you can still cover the costs without having to absorb an immediate hit to your wallet.

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Find charitable support

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If you are struggling to pay a hospital bill, speak with someone in the hospital’s financial support office. You might be entitled to financial help. Check your state laws. For example, in Colorado, hospitals must offer financial help to people who qualify for such aid.

Other charities also can help you pay medical bills. The HealthWell Foundation helps those who are underinsured to pay copays, premiums, deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses.

Try to give the charity details about your medical condition, financial burden and other pertinent information that can help them direct you to funds that are focused on your particular issues.

Consolidate medical debt

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If you have several bills from different providers, it might be good to consider consolidating medical debt. This might make it easier for you to get debt under control by paying one monthly payment instead of trying to juggle multiple bills.

However, be aware that debt consolidation can also come with some downside. For example, if you take out a personal loan to consolidate your medical debt, you will have to pay interest. By contrast, if you can work directly with a provider to create a more flexible payment schedule, you can avoid this interest cost.

If you are unsure about whether to pursue debt consolidation, consider working with a nonprofit debt counseling organization to get the input of an expert.

Get a medical billing advocate

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If you have multiple bills piling up, a professional medical billing advocate may be able to help by talking to various providers to get the best deals or payment plans.

A medical billing advocate also may be able to help create a payment plan with your provider, or haggle over incorrect charges or other issues with your insurance company.

The AdvoConnection Directory and the Alliance of Claims Assistance Professionals can help you find a medical billing advocate. Just be aware that you might need to pay a fee for the help.

Prioritize other debt

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Medical debt may not cause as much of a problem for you as other types of debt. Missing mortgage payments can put your home at risk. Failing to pay your credit card balance can hurt your credit. In addition, the big three credit-reporting agencies -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion -- recently announced they will stop noting medical debt in collections under $500 on credit reports by next year.

It might be worth it to consider prioritizing more important bills before worrying about medical bills. Putting medical bills lower on your list also gives you some extra time to review your medical debt and negotiate a possible solution with your providers that can help you pay those bills.

Create your own plan

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If you have a few smaller medical bills, it may be a good idea to consider how to fit that debt into your current budget. Perhaps you can use money you’ve been saving for a big vacation to pay down your debt instead.

These bills may also qualify as expenses that can be covered by your emergency fund, if you have one. You could also pay your bills off with a credit card, although this may not be a good option if you have a high interest rate and cannot pay the balance off quickly.

Be careful not to add to your debt

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Accumulating medical debt is stressful. The last thing you need is to add to that debt.

So, do your best to keep your costs as low as possible for medical care, while also making sure to prioritize your health! Research your insurance options before you schedule a specific procedure or other medical event, such as surgery or the birth of a child. If you know exactly what is and is not covered you can plan for it and work to find providers that your insurer will cover.

Doing this homework before you receive care might help prevent you from having to pay medical bills that are unnecessarily high, or at least help you to plan for them so you can avoid the sticker shock after the fact.

Also, make sure your current insurer is the right fit for your needs. If you are dissatisfied with the expenses associated with your plan, try to find better coverage the next time your policy comes up for renewal. For example, you might want to compare different plans through private insurance or on the HealthCare.gov marketplace.

Bottom line

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It can be difficult dealing with the burden of medical bills, but there are ways to get out from under that stressful pile of debt. Take a look at your outstanding bills and think about some of the options you may have to get your medical debt under control and be more manageable going forward.

You may be surprised how an action plan can help relieve the stress of medical bills.

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Author Details

Jenny Cohen

Jenny Cohen is a freelance writer who has covered a bit of everything, from finance to sports to her favorite TV shows. Her work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and FoxSports.com.