Getting out of debt

Managing medical debt and bills

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Managing medical debt and bills is an unfortunate reality for many Americans. According to a recent study, in 2016 over 16% of Americans had outstanding medical debt. This amounts to nearly 40 million people struggling with past due medical bills.

Managing medical debt and bills can feel overwhelming, but there are strategies and resources available to help you regain control of your finances. This article provides practical tips on how to prioritize medical debt, negotiate with providers, understand your rights as a patient, and seek assistance if needed.

Assessing Your Medical Debt

The first step is to get a complete picture of what you owe:

  • Request an itemized statement from each provider showing services, charges, payments, and balance due
  • Check your credit report for any medical debts in collections
  • Make a list of all outstanding medical bills with balances, due dates, interest rates and minimum payments

Next, prioritize paying down high interest accounts first and negotiate payment plans for necessary providers. If you have multiple accounts with similar interest rates, focus on paying down the smallest balances first to start seeing results quickly.

Negotiating and Reducing Medical Bills

Don’t assume the initial bill you receive is final – there are often opportunities to lower what you owe through negotiation:

  • Ask for prompt payment discounts. Many providers offer 20-30% discount for paying bill quickly.
  • Question any inaccuracies or duplicate charges. Don’t pay for services you didn’t receive.
  • Negotiate overall balance with hospital billing department. Offer to pay a lower lump sum to settle, especially if you have low income.
  • Request an interest-free payment plan. A reasonable monthly payment may be accepted, even if balance takes years to pay off.
  • Apply for financial assistance. Hospitals are required to have financial assistance policies and provide discounts or fee waivers based on your income.

Understanding Your Rights as a Patient

There are also laws that protect patients from certain billing practices:

  • You can’t be turned away for emergency treatment due to inability to pay. Emergency rooms must evaluate and stabilize any medical emergencies.
  • Non-profit hospitals can’t engage in extraordinary collection actions before making reasonable efforts to determine if you are eligible for financial assistance.
  • For-profit hospitals can’t report medical debt to credit bureaus or sell debt to third party collection agencies before 120 days.
  • Providers and collection agencies are prohibited from harassing patients regarding medical debt through excessive phone calls, threats of arrest, wage garnishment without a court order, etc.

Knowing your rights enables you to identify any violations and report issues promptly.

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Seeking Medical Debt Assistance

If you are still struggling with unaffordable medical bills after pursuing the above steps, there are organizations that provide financial assistance:

  • Local non-profits and religious organizations. Many have funds to help pay medical bills for community members in need.
  • Medicaid. This provides free or low-cost health coverage to millions of low-income individuals and families.
  • Health insurance Marketplace. You may qualify for tax credits that lower your premiums and out-of-pocket costs if your income falls within a certain range.
  • Crowdfunding. Sites like GoFundMe enable you to fundraise for medical costs through social media campaigns.
  • Medical bill mediation. Non-profit credit counselors can negotiate with providers to reduce your overall debt.
  • Bankruptcy. This legally eliminates or repayment schedules certain debts when you have no feasible way to pay. Medical debt is one of most common reasons Americans file for bankruptcy.

Tips for Avoiding Medical Debt

Here are some key strategies to avoid accumulating medical debt in the first place:

  • Get insured. Having health insurance, whether private or public, significantly reduces your risk of medical debt. Review all options annually.
  • Understand your policy. Know what’s covered, any applicable co-pays and deductibles, and your total out-of-pocket maximum costs.
  • Use in-network providers. Staying in-network helps lower your costs. Verify participating providers prior to any planned medical care.
  • Save for health expenses. If possible, build an emergency health savings fund to cover co-pays, medications, mental health services, vision and dental care.
  • Negotiate costs upfront. Request estimated costs for procedures ahead of time and clarify your payment responsibilities.
  • Put care on a credit card. This lets you pay off costs over time at lower financing rates. Just be sure to pay off the monthly balance.

Key Takeaways for Managing medical debt and bills

  • Assess all outstanding medical bills and prioritize high interest accounts first
  • Negotiate balances directly with hospitals and providers
  • Understand your rights and protections as a patient regarding billing practices
  • Seek assistance from non-profits, government programs, fundraising sites if needed
  • Going forward, get insured, understand your policy, use in-network providers and plan ahead to avoid further medical debt

Dealing with medical debt can feel overwhelming but taking it step-by-step and knowing your options will help you get back on track financially. The most important thing is to not neglect your health – get the care you need and develop a reasonable payment plan you can manage. Your long term health and financial wellbeing are worth the initial effort.


Hamel, Liz, et al. “The Burden of Medical Debt: Results from the Kaiser Family Foundation/New York Times Medical Bills Survey.” Health Affairs, vol. 35, no. 3, 2016, pp. 411–418.,

Pollitz, Karen. “Surprise Medical Bills.” The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 17 Sept. 2018,

“Your Rights Against Surprise Medical Bills.” Consumer Financial Protection Bureau,


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