You didn't choose to be stuck with expensive emergency care costs.
But, it's a reality for people who need urgent medical attention.
As a result, the medical bill can come as a shocker.
If you're in this predicament, you are not alone – not by a long shot.
Millions of U.S. consumers have past due medical debt on their credit reports, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Many doctors and hospitals don’t report debts directly to credit bureaus, but they frequently turn unpaid medical debt over to collection agencies which will not hesitate to report.
Unlike credit cards, auto loans, student loans, and mortgages, there are no “good marks” for paying medical debt on-time.
Patients only receive negative marks when unpaid medical bills get turned over to collection agencies.
Even with health insurance, deductibles, copayments and other charges not covered by your insurance company can add up quickly.
It may be weeks, or months before a bill shows up in your mailbox.
Your visit to the emergency room may be a distant memory, but you’re still on the hook for that bill.
The Health Care Cost Institute reports spending on emergency room visits continues to rise year over year, with the average cost of an emergency room visit being $1,917 in 2016.
Emergency room visits are higher than ever, largely due to astronomical administrative costs, unnecessary “defensive diagnostics” doctors order to prevent being sued, and the high cost of prescription drugs.
Many people are shocked when they use emergency care services at a hospital. So, what do you do?
Be Prepared for a Month’s Rent – or More
How much you spend for an emergency room visit will vary dramatically, depending on where you go for medical treatment and what kind of health insurance coverage you have.
When your health insurance won’t cover it, you will be left with the burden of paying the bill.
If you’ve received a bill in the mail, it’s time to face it head on.
The following are steps to take to minimize emergency care expenses:
Review the bills for inaccuracies
Many patients do not look over their EOB (explanations of benefits) closely.
Things to look for include duplicate billing, such as being charged for a blood test twice, or incorrectly coded treatments or diagnostics.
If you find inaccuracies, call your hospital or provider, or the treating doctor’s office, and ask for a corrected bill.
Speak with the hospital
When you call the hospital about your bill, ask the person you talk to for the manager of the billing department.
Understand what your insurer will pay, visit the Healthcare Bluebook to understand what your health plan will pay your medical provider, and emphasize wanting to pay a fair price.
Be prepared to explain and provide documentation of your ability to pay.
Be persistent, as if the provider is getting ready to sell the debt to a collection agency, they may ignore your attempts to contact them.
Get a medical billing advocate
A medical billing advocate will typically charge a flat fee or a percentage of the money they save you (such as 25%).
A patient advocate can help protect your rights, understand billing errors and over-billing, such as receiving multiple bills for the same services.
If you are receiving regular, extensive medical bills,
Hospital bill assistance
You cannot go to jail for failing to pay a bill, but not paying your medical bills can have a myriad of negative consequences.
If you cannot pay off your debt, ask the hospital about a payment plan, and how patients in your similar situation have managed to resolve their debt.
Get a personal loan
If your hospital still won’t play ball with you, it may be worthwhile to consider a personal loan.
Personal loans, also known as freedom or signature loans, are convenient because you can quickly pay off your medical care provider and just pay the loan over the course of the terms you established.
In your hospital negotiations, keep in mind that with a consolidation of medical bills to a personal loan, you are essentially bringing a cash payment to the collection agency.
Ask the person you are negotiating with what they recommend for a fair consolidation.
What If You Don’t Pay
Most doctors and hospitals simply will not chase down debt, due to the many hours involved.
They will quickly turn over your debt to a local hospital.
If you choose to take ill-advised recommendation of completely ignoring your medical bills, be prepared for collection agency calls, letters, and multiple attempts to contact you.
If you ignore the calls, within a matter of time, the collection agency may stop contacting you.
This does not mean your debt has gone away. If you want to buy a car or a home at any point in the next decade, not paying medical bills can also make this difficult to impossible, as you may be unable to qualify.
Along with the doctor reporting your lack of payment to the collection agency which then contacts the credit bureaus, your insurance company may also sue you.
Remember that at the end of the day, your medical care provider wants to get paid. They (and the agencies they work for) are very often willing to accept a partial payment in full or work out a payment plan with you.
Communicating with the hospital, offering partial payment or a payment of a certain amount every month, may be an effective resolution.
When you settle up a debt, make sure to get in writing whatever you negotiate with your medical provider or a collection agency on their behalf.
In your negotiations, be sure to request removal of the item from your credit report, also known as “Pay for Delete”.
Ways to Avoid High Emergency Care Costs
Although it may be tempting to error on the side of caution and recite the proverbial “It’s better to be safe than sorry”, that logic should not be a justification for unnecessary emergency room visit.
Before you call 911 and request an ambulance, or have someone drive you to the emergency room, see if you can avoid the medical care, and still get medical care/assurance that everything is okay.
Don’t go to the ER for dental care
If you’ve got a severe toothache, you need to see a dentist.
Although you may be able to get pain medication, your treating physician will not be able to pull your tooth or provide any dental care.
If you have a toothache, try to manage the pain at home, and try to call your dentist, or any local dentist that can treat you same-day.
See your primary doctor instead
If you are able to avoid getting medical treatment at an emergency department, do so.
If your medical event happens in the town you live in, and during “normal business hours” it is very possible that you can see your doctor, or another medical care provider in their office, that day.
Even if your doctor is not available immediately, your doctor’s office may be able to review your situation over the phone, advise you how to treat the condition “over the counter”, and schedule a visit for the following morning,
If you can - document your care
There have been cases where someone went to an emergency room and received an ice pack and no other treatment, only to receive a bill in the mail for over $5,000.
If you must go to the emergency room, taking photos of the experience can be important evidence to preserve the events surrounding your visit.
Snap quick photos of anything you sign.
Call a 24-hour nurse line
If you are fortunate enough to have insurance, check and see if your health insurer offers a Nurse Advice Line or a 24-hour Nurse Line, offered by Blue Cross Blue Shield, Kaiser, and United Health Care.
These telephone lines offer medical professionals to help you decide if you need to seek emergency care, visit your legal urgent care, or schedule a routine appointment.
Avoid ambulance/medivac if needed
Never use an emergency ambulance for something you can schedule.
Ambulance service costs vary depending on location, whether the trip is for an emergency or scheduled transport, how many miles you need to travel and whether basic life support or advanced life support is needed.
If you are not in critical condition, get to the hospital by car.
Have an Emergency Fund
Many financial advisors stress the importance of an emergency fund.
If you are in your 20’s or 30’s, a medical event and astronomical medical expenses may not seem likely.
Ideal Size of an Emergency Fund
|To start...||Ideal goal...||Super safe...|
|$1,000||3-6 months of essential expenses||12 months of expenses|
The first step in establishing an emergency fund is to set aside $1,000.
The second part of establishing an emergency fund is setting aside 3-6 months of living expenses.
In the event you have a medical event that you cannot afford, your emergency fund will be your lifeline.