How I Recovered from Over $500,000 Worth of Medical Debt

Young and with kids, a sudden illness caused us to have thousands in medical debt with no idea how to repay it. Here's what we did.
Last updated April 19, 2023 | By Sandy Baker Edited By Jeff White
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A sudden diagnosis of heart failure in a 28-year-old otherwise healthy person is challenging to accept. 

Spending the next months grappling with questions like “Will he be able to go back to work?” and “How will we make payments on our mortgage?” was difficult.

We were married just three years prior, had children, and were shocked to see a huge medical bill show up for the unexpected diagnosis of a chronic health condition.

Pulling together and working hard to make big decisions, we were able to pay off $500,000 worth of medical debt and put ourselves on the path to overcoming numerous additional financial difficulties along the way.

Here’s how we paid off that debt, plus our tips for reducing money stress if you find yourself in a similar situation.

Recognize the debt isn’t all due in 30 days

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We had insurance, which covered more than $700,000 worth of medical debt from my husband’s virus-induced heart failure. Yet we had this huge bill to pay for his hospital stay and numerous procedures.

On top of that, this was a chronic condition, one he continues to battle as he waits for a heart transplant (nearly 20 years later).

Our first realization was that we didn’t have to pay everything all at once (medical debt doesn’t show up on your credit report for 365 days). Instead, we could structure our debt for repayment that fit our lives.

Verify the accuracy of your bills

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One of the first things we did was review all of the charges. In the hospital, we signed plenty of forms providing consent and agreeing to pay for various medical procedures.

Within the details of these bills, we learned that numerous providers failed to bill insurance using the proper code. That caused the insurance company to claim the procedures were not approved.

Luckily, we caught this by reviewing the bills, pinpointing what occurred, going back to the terms of those agreements, and verifying we could dispute the costs. This saved us several thousand dollars.

Talk to a social worker

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As a new, young family where my husband was the sole breadwinner and then suddenly out of work, we were terrified of what was to come.

We set up an appointment with an amazing social worker at the hospital who helped us navigate the costs and options available.

One of the first steps was to request a review of all of our costs. This forced the hospital to verify all costs, and in turn, we saw the overall bill drop by about 10% due to “errors” or “unverifiable charges.”

Find out if you qualify for low-income savings

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The large hospital my husband was working with had numerous tools in place to help those with lower incomes.

We applied for an income-driven hardship plan, which would reduce our monthly bill to under $100 until we could figure out what to do next.

That didn’t help us to pay down the debt but allowed us to get back to work and eliminate some money stress.

Build a budget

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About six months after his health scare, he was back to work, and I was working as well. From the start, we created a steady budget and followed it very closely.

It meant plenty of sacrifices, including creating low-cost meals and working to reduce any extras like eating out or buying random toys we didn’t really need.

Negotiate when you can

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It would have been easy to spend our sizable tax refund each year on something special or interesting, but instead, we used it to help us pay down our medical debt.

We then contacted the financial aid office at the hospital and negotiated with them to pay off some of the debt.

For example, in the first year, we received a $3,400 tax refund. We had one individual debt for a doctor that was $5,300. We got the provider to agree to payment in full with just the $3,400. 

We did this for several years and saved around $27,000 this way.

Improve insurance coverage

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After this diagnosis, we recognized the need for better insurance, but my husband now had a pre-existing condition, which would make it super hard for him to get an affordable policy.

Thankfully, now that I was working, we could add him to my health insurance as secondary coverage, which helped nearly eliminate most of his ongoing medical and prescription costs.

I specifically took a job offering quality insurance because of how vital we knew it was.

Figure out COBRA

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About 12 years into his diagnosis, my husband's condition worsened, with his heart pumping at less than 16% (60% is considered normal).

This meant the next step in his journey: the placement of a left-ventricular assist device (LVAD). Unfortunately, he wouldn’t be able to go back to work.

Our social worker told us of a program the hospital offered in which they would pay his COBRA insurance payment each month for as long as he was eligible.

The hospital covered his COBRA payment monthly, which bought us time until he qualified for Medicare through disability.

Apply for low-cost supplies

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This new condition required ongoing medical supplies, which we paid $250 per month out of pocket after insurance. We applied for financial assistance to get that cost lowered significantly.

Don’t pay interest on medical debt

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Our hospital system, the Cleveland Clinic, was exceptional to us in providing care, and we knew he needed to stay there because of their history.

We were able to request help with his medical bills from the hospital from the start. We learned they would finance just about all of it without interest because we showed that his income was now nothing.

Rework the budget as circumstances change

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Over the next few years, my husband’s condition stabilized, and we were able to really tackle debt. He couldn’t work, but we reworked our budget to focus solely on my income.

Once he started to receive disability payments, we applied that balance in full to his medical debt, negotiating with every single provider.

They knew we could easily file for bankruptcy, and their debt would be wiped out, so most were more than willing to work with us.

Get a side hustle

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Because I was working, we didn’t qualify for Medicaid. However, recognizing our need to make extra money, I began to work a second job from home.

Initially, it was a phone position for a few nights a week. Then I helped watch children for several nurses who worked overnight shifts. Eventually, I made my way into building a business through freelance writing.

Don’t use credit

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Initially, we had some credit card debt, and that was the most difficult part of remaining within budget because of the high-interest rates. We paid those off as a priority and lived a cash-based budget moving forward.

We were approached several times about home equity loans, debt consolidation and personal loans, and high-interest credit to pay off our medical debt. Don’t fall for this trap!

With our payment plan, we had no pressure to pay interest or make payments we couldn’t afford. And the clinic was not reporting this debt to the credit bureaus. Consolidating would have cost us much more.

Remain consistent in building savings

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Over the last decade, our medical bills have risen and fallen numerous times, thanks in part to his ongoing care needs, numerous hospitalizations, trips to the ER, and his 17+ daily medications.

However, we have remained consistent in building up our emergency fund. It has helped to manage ups and downs in our budget or when I couldn't work due to needing to be at the hospital.

Don’t ignore bills

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As bills roll in, we verify them, document what they are, and then add them to the payment cycle.

We’ve paid off more than $500,000 of medical debt over his illness, but we recognize we will continue to have more coming in.

By staying on top of bills, it’s easier to verify that something isn’t accurate. We also work with our insurance company consistently to ensure he has coverage that aligns best with his care.

Bottom line

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Medical debt is hard, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the world. It’s actually something that anyone can move past, even if it doesn’t initially feel like it.

We’ve found that most providers are more than willing to work with you, reduce charges, and be flexible as long as you continue to make some type of payment. There were some months when $10 was all that we could pay. 

As my husband waits for a heart transplant now, we have a strong plan in place to cover the next onslaught of medical debt that’s likely to come. 

But since we took the right steps, we’re doing better financially than we initially thought.

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Author Details

Sandy Baker Sandy Baker is a has over 17 years of experience in the financial sector. Her experience includes website content, blogs, and social media. She’s worked with companies such as, Bankrate, TransUnion, Equifax, and Consumer Affairs.