It Pays to Thoroughly Review Your Medical Bills

Even a Quick Review Could Possibly Save You Thousands

Medical expenses are second only to divorce as a cause of bankruptcies across our nation. Everyone - from politicians to homemakers - seems to know that we are in the midst of a health care crisis, but no one seems to know what to do about it. Skyrocketing costs and a floundering economy have put more hospitals in need of aggressive collection tactics as fewer people are financially able to pay their medical bills.

Unpaid bills are not just written off by the providers, however. Hospitals, clinics, physicians and others in the medical industry pass those expenses along to every other patient, regardless of whether bills are being paid by Medicare, Medicaid, private insurance or a state-funded medical assistance plan.

Stories like those relayed by author Jane Brody in a recent New York Times article are sadly common. She told the tale of her elderly - 88-year-old - aunt who was aggressively treated (taken to the hospital by ambulance, evaluated for hours in the emergency room and admitted for observation) for what was luckily only a side effect of a recent prescription. Several months later, the final tally was in for the short hospital stay - nearly $19,000. For an elderly woman on a fixed income, even the remaining, uncovered amount of about $1,000 was cost-prohibitive.

Luckily the author's cousin (the patient's daughter), took a long, hard look at the itemized bill. What she saw astounded her:

  • Nearly $500 for a bottle of prescription eye drops normally costing $85 for a one-month supply
  • Baby aspirin - more than $4 each
  • Multivitamins, vitamin C and stool softeners - also more than $4 each
  • Six doses, when only two were needed, of a name-brand heart medication - about $11 each

As is commonly the case, when these ridiculously high and erroneous charges were brought to the attention of the hospital billing office, they agreed to accept a smaller amount. The fact that care providers are so often willing to negotiate partial payments leads many patients to believe that they are being overcharged in the first place. Since the reality is that some hospitals are overcharging some patients for services to cover the shortfall caused by non-paying patients and insufficient government reimbursements, every medical bill should be thoroughly examined.

Here are some guidelines for keeping your health care expenses in check:

  • Asking questions when doctors request hospital stays or costly tests, especially when lesser measures haven't been attempted
  • Making sure that billed procedures actually took place - did the doctor change his mind about a test at the last minute? It could still appear on the bill.
  • Be on the lookout for math errors - a misplaced decimal point or extra zero could cost you thousands
  • Request "translation" of complex jargon or medical billing codes
  • If you can afford to make a payment right away, you may be able to negotiate with the provider and get them to accept a smaller amount; in the case of Jane Brody's aunt, the hospital agreed to accept only $200 in lieu of the original $1000 if a payment was made that same day
  • Ask about the possibility of a payment plan
  • If possible, find out beforehand if physician expenses are included in the total bill, if a rival hospital offers the same procedures or tests at a lower rate, etc.

With medical debt, like every other kind of debt, ignoring the problem will not make it go away. The inability to pay an exorbitant medical bill is not a sign of failure or weakness. You may need help managing your debt if you feel overwhelmed, especially in such a sluggish economy. If you are in need of assistance, consider seeking the advice of a skilled Chicago bankruptcy attorney to learn more about legal options that can help put you back on sound financial footing.