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4 Smart Ways to Shrink Your Medical Bills

Millions of Americans are saddled with medical debt.

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Are you among the millions of Americans saddled with medical debt? This kind of undue burden can limit your choices and make your life a lot harder. To help, we’ve collected some expert tips that may cut hundreds — even thousands, in some cases — off of your healthcare costs. Use these tips to shrink your medical bills.

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Don’t pay these bills

Get a bill from your doctor after a visit? Don’t grab your checkbook yet, urges board-certified patient advocate and healthcare coach Sandra Washington, founder of Medi-Helpz, LLC (MediHelpz.com). “If you have health insurance, the bill should go through them first,” she explains. They will send you an Explanation of Benefits (EOB), which tells you how much you owe, if anything, after insurance pays their part. “If you’re paying out of pocket because you don’t have insurance, you’ll want to first ask your provider for an itemized bill, which shows you a list of procedures and tests done during your visit,” says Washington. This is important since it’s estimated that 80 percent of medical bills have errors (like duplicate charges or incorrect codes for procedures), which can tack on hundreds of dollars. If you’re unsure what a procedure code means, you can call your provider’s office or look it up online.

Tip! Want to find a lower-cost insurance plan? Open Enrollment for Medicare starts October 15 (Medicare.gov) and on November 1 for private health insurance. (Compare plans at healthcare.gov/see-plans)

Dodge surprise charges

Have health insurance? Good news: The “No Surprises Act” was enacted on January 1 to help you avoid unexpected medical bills, including those you get by unknowingly using an out-of-network healthcare provider, such as a doctor or lab. Unfortunately, this new federal law doesn’t cover every surprise cost. Many people in the US still receive unexpected medical bills.

Luckily, there’s one easy way to avoid having to pay surprise medical bills from out-of-network providers: Ask your doctor for a list of in-network providers when referring you to specialists, labs, and facilities. “If you ask your doctor to do this and he or she ends up sending you to an out-of-network provider, you can call your health insurance company and let them know, then refute the bill,” says Washington. “That’s because doctors sign a contract with insurers that states they will send you to a provider in their network.” If they don’t, the fee is not your responsibility.

Pay this way

Having trouble paying a big medical bill because you have no insurance or you have a high deductible? “Avoid putting it on a credit card,” urges Washington. “With all that interest, you’ll end up paying thousands of dollars more than you actually owe.” A better solution: Ask your provider for a payment plan where you pay a little in monthly installments. “About 90 percent of doctors and other providers will work with you if they know you want to pay.”

Dispute late requests

Receive a bill from a provider for a visit you had four months ago or longer and your insurance didn’t pay it? Chances are, the doctor missed their window for timely filing. Explains Washington: “This is when providers fail to submit medical bills in a timely fashion to the health insurance company.” Every insurer provides a time frame to file claims, usually from 90 days to 12 months. If providers don’t submit them within that period, the insurer can deny payment. When this happens, your provider may bill you, but patients aren’t responsible for claims denied due to timely filing policies, says Washington. To learn if the bill you received was due to this issue, check your EOB or call your insurance company. If it is, you can dispute it.

Want to dispute a bill due to an error or feel your insurance should have paid for the visit? “Call your provider and ask to have your bill put on a 30-day ‘hold’ while you figure out the issue,” says Washington. How can this help you? Typically, you have about 120 days to pay a bill before it’s sent to a third-party collections company, which will cost you more in added fees. “A temporary hold provides you with time to resolve your complaint.”

This article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.

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