7 Ways to Protect Yourself from Bankruptcy on Medical Bills
Health problems can be traumatic enough on their own, but many families deal with the added trauma of financial ruin due to the high costs of care. Over a quarter of people in the United States have said they’ve had trouble paying a medical bill in the last year, and 40% owe money to collectors due to a past sickness.
You can work hard to be financially responsible and try to accrue savings throughout your life, but none of us can avoid sickness and injury forever. As you well know already, seniors have a greater risk for a large number of diseases, injuries, and health concerns than younger people do. While Medicare can help to offset some of the costs seniors grapple with, dealing with debt collectors coming after medical bill payments is high up on the list of issues seniors complain about.
Three in five bankruptcies in the United States are due to medical bills. No one wants to work hard their whole life only to lose everything due to an illness. While there are a lot of factors you can’t control when it comes to medical bills, here are seven tips to help you avoid facing bankruptcy due to health problems.
1. Take time to know your health insurance and Medicare policies.
No one wants to do this. Insurance policies are complicated and generally written in ways that make them extremely difficult to understand. But the better you understand what’s covered and what’s not, the better you’ll be at making informed decisions about the treatments recommend by your doctor and evaluating the bills you’re sent.
2. Know your rights.
While the situation can generally get pretty dire when it comes to paying for health care in the U.S., there are laws on the books to help protect people who struggle with paying for the services they need. If you don’t know your rights, it may be easy for bill collectors to take advantage of you.
One of the most important rights for you to know is that you can’t be denied any emergency care based on inability to pay. You will be billed later, but you shouldn’t ever feel pressured to put it on a credit card or accept high-interest debt in order to get the care you need.
The next thing to remember is that medical debt can’t count against your credit. Yes, collectors can hound you for it and make your life more stressful and unpleasant, but they can’t hurt your credit over it.
Finally, your privacy is covered under HIPAA. If a hospital or insurance company sends a bill to claims and in doing so violates your privacy, you can report them.
3. Invest in long-term care insurance as early as possible.
Financial experts recommend purchasing long-term care insurance sometime in your 50s. If you’ve missed that chance already, it’s still worth looking into available plans. Long-term care is costly – assisted living costs average about $43,000 per year. If you can get help with those costs, your savings account (and those of your offspring) will be much better for it.
4. Have a savings account devoted to health care costs.
If you start a Health Savings Account (HSA) when you’re young, you can invest the maximum amount in it each year up until you enroll in Medicare. Not only do you not have to pay taxes on money invested in an HSA, but if you manage to build it up over the years when you don’t need to draw on it as much, then you have a nice financial cushion there for you when you start to have higher health costs in your senior years.
Once you’ve signed up for Medicare, you’ll no longer be able to make new contributions to an HSA, but you can still use any of the money that’s there for healthcare purposes. You also have the option of setting up a Medical Savings Account (MSA) if you enroll in certain types of private Medicare Advantage plans.
HSAs and MSAs aren’t for everyone; they only work with certain types of insurance plans. Even if you don’t qualify for them, you can always set up a savings account with healthcare costs in mind to encourage you to devote a certain percentage of your income to savings for this purpose. It won’t get the same tax benefits of an HSA, but you’ll still have the pool of money to pull from when the time comes.
5. Be willing to ask questions.
A lot of healthcare spending is the result of ignorance. If you knew there was a cheaper prescription option available, wouldn’t you try it? If you could always get a clear picture of how the cost-benefit relationship compares between two different procedures, it would often change your view of which to go with. Be willing to ask your doctor lots of questions. Don’t just trust that the first course of action they suggest is necessarily the best. Ask about alternatives and costs while you’re there in the office.
And then ask more questions at the drug store, and then even more when you’re talking to your insurance company. Feel free to annoy everyone who works at each place if that’s the cost of understanding what to expect your medical bills to be and how to bring costs down.
6. Don’t accept all bills at face value.
Almost half of all medical bills are believed to include errors. A lot of different people are involved in creating those bills, assigning them the proper codes, determining what’s covered by insurance, and making the decisions that ultimately determine what you owe. That provides a lot of opportunity for errors to slip in.
If it looks like your bill includes duplicate charges, procedures you’re not sure occurred, or anything else that seems suspicious, call and ask. You may have to spend some time on hold or on the phone to get an answer, but if it saves you hundreds or thousands, that time will be well worth it.
7. Make an effort to avoid interest.
As with all types of debt, avoiding interest is a good idea. Many hospitals will offer payment plans that don’t involve interest. It never hurts to ask. If you find the bills piling up, you’ll be glad not to watch the interest debt balloon along with the rest.
And definitely don’t pay with your credit card if you’re not sure if or when you can pay it off. Most people can find other payment options or financial assistance with a little help. Sometimes hospitals will work with you to bring the costs down if they understand your financial difficulties. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and just don’t know where to begin, consider hiring a health advocate. Somebody who knows the system better than you will know the right questions to ask and what steps you can take to bring your costs down.
Bonus tip: Stay as healthy as possible.
Being inactive has been estimated to cost up to $1,125 per person per year in healthcare costs. Obesity and smoking regularly lead to higher healthcare premiums, in addition to the costs of the healthcare problems they contribute to like lung cancer and heart disease.
You can’t avoid every health issue, but eating well, working out, and quitting smoking will all add up to fewer hospital visits and health concerns, which nets lower healthcare costs over a lifetime. The next time you’re tempted to buy a pack or load up on unhealthy snacks at the grocery store, picture a devastatingly high medical bill as a deterrent.