When I write about advocating for the consumer when he or she is in debt, I usually receive a good amount of feedback blaming the consumer for his or her situation. Yes, in many cases, households fall into debt because they buy more things they cannot afford, whether knowingly or unknowingly. In many cases, they ignore their own financial condition without worry for their future or while knowing that a declaration of bankruptcy can save them when life gets rough.
Not everyone falls into these categories, I remind the critics. Medical emergencies are expensive and cannot always be adequately planned for in advance. Credit card debt maybe the only option, or sometimes just a slightly better option that financing your bills directly from the hospital. Here is one example from the New York Times:
Mr. Kupka has multiple sclerosis. The Kupkas, who live in Lindstrom, Minn., have an annual income of $45,000 — a combination of her salary as an office manager and his disability payments. More than 20 percent of that income goes toward health care. Their annual insurance premiums total $5,400, and then there’s the $4,000 Mr. Kupka spends on drugs, doctor’s visits and lab fees before he fulfills his policy’s deductible.
In the three years since Mr. Kupka’s disability forced him to stop working as a mental health therapist, he has accumulated $12,000 in debt. “It’s frustrating,” he says. “We earn too much to qualify for state and county assistance, but not enough to stay ahead of the bills. I’ve thought maybe my wife and I should get divorced. But not only is it against our faith, it turns out it wouldn’t help…” [A]s Mr. Kupka’s situation illustrates, it’s not just uninsured patients who rack up large bills. Nearly two-thirds of those with debt problems… had health insurance.
The article offers tips for dealing with insurmountable medical expenses:
- Confront, don’t ignore, your situation. If you don’t pay your bills and the hospital decides to use a collection agency, your hardship will increase. Your credit report and credit score will be adversely affected.
- Review your bills. Health providers make mistakes on bills all the time, but many errors are not caught. Some procedures or services may have several names, identical is everything except price, so it helps to work with a medical expert if you have any questions. You can also resubmit your bills to your insurance company if coverage is denied. If you are still not satisfied, your bills may qualify for a third-party review.
- Hire an expert. The article suggests working with the Medical Billing Advocates of America to find a qualified mediator to negotiate between yourself and the health care provider.
- Don’t use a credit card. If you can help it, avoid paying your bill on a credit card if you can’t pay off the balance quickly. Interest charged for your use of someone else’s money will increase your debt. Watch out for credit cards offered by a hospital with immediate approval. These are like store credit cards; they might offer a 0% interest rate up front, but you might fall into a trap and owe much more interest than they’ll tell you when they’re busy saying, “You’re approved!”
- Don’t let debt collectors take advantage of you. Know your rights for dealing with debt collectors in your state. They may only call you during certain hours, they may not harass you, and they may not threaten you. If they break the rules, you can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
Situations deteriorate faster if you do not have health insurance. Find a way to get covered if you are not a member of plan yet.
Updated June 24, 2016 and originally published April 30, 2009.