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How To Get Financial Help for Expensive Medical Bills

Even with insurance, healthcare costs can be exorbitant. Here's how to find financial assistance for medical bills that you can't afford.

One day last winter, my younger brother, who had recently moved to Colorado, called to let me know that he was going to be skiing for the first time with some friends. He was so excited, and I was excited for him.

Unfortunately, the excitement was short-lived. Soon after arriving at the slopes, a nasty wipeout left him with a broken collarbone and in need of a long ambulance ride to the nearest hospital.

About a month later, I received another (rather panicked) call. My brother had just received a $1,500 ambulance bill. He assumed that his hospital bills would likely cost just as much, if not more, and his insurance deductible was $6,000. How was he going to afford this?

My brother had painfully discovered that medical bills could be crushing, even with insurance. Thankfully, I was able to share some strategies to help him cope with these unexpected costs. If you're dealing with expensive medical bills that you can't afford, here are some things to consider.

1. Negotiate with the Hospital's Billing Department

If you're hoping to negotiate a lower amount for a medical bill, don't bother contacting the doctor who performed the services. Instead, you'll want to find and call the phone number of the billing department.

Before you start the negotiation process, it's important that you do a little homework. Begin by reviewing your bills to make sure that there aren't any errors. For example, you may have been billed for a service that you never actually received. You can search for billing errors yourself or work with a company that specializes in identifying them, such as Medliminal or CoPatient.

Next, you'll want to know the typical cost of all the tests and care that you received. Healthcare Bluebook can be a great resource during this step. If you can confirm that your doctor's office or hospital's prices are well above the average for your area, this could help your case during negotiations.

Now that you've done your research, it's time to call up the billing department. There are two tips that will improve your chances of having a productive conversation. First, be calm and polite. Yelling or throwing insults at the billing representative will only hurt your chances of getting any available help.

Second, ask open-ended questions. For example, rather than asking, "Can you take $500 off my bill?" try something akin to "Can you share with me all the relief programs, waivers, or discounts that are available?" By keeping the question open, you may discover financial help that you would have never even thought to ask for.

2. Set Up a Low-or-No-Interest Payment Plan

Even after negotiating a lower amount for your medical bills, they may still be too high to pay off in one lump sum. What can you do? Again, the hospital or clinic billing department may be able to help.

Ask the billing team if they offer payment plans. By setting up a payment plan, you can split up the bill into smaller chunks while also avoiding late charges or collections agencies. Plus, the interest rates on hospital payment plans are often very generous.

My wife and I once set up a payment plan for an expensive emergency room bill that allowed us to make interest-free payments for 12 months. And if we had needed more time to pay off the bill, the interest rate for the next six months would have been very low.

If you can't set up a payment plan with your hospital, there are third-party companies that offer them as well. Some even include 0% options and promise to accept all applicants regardless of credit history.

3. Look for Healthcare-Related Grants

There are a number of non-profit organizations that offer grants to help make medical care affordable to everyone. A few examples include:

Many foundations that offer grants for medical bills focus their financial assistance on those who are underinsured or are dealing with specific diseases. Visit the websites for each foundation to find their grant eligibility criteria and to apply.

4. Apply for a 0% APR Credit Card

Many credit cards offer 0% APR promotional periods to new cardholders. Some of the best cards available today offer 15 months or more of zero interest.

By signing up for one of these credit cards and paying your medical bills with it, you can essentially create your own 15+ month 0% payment plan. This strategy worked great for my brother after he had exhausted his bill negotiation options.

It's important to note that you'll typically need a good FICO Score to get approved for a 0% APR card. Also, note that once the promotional period ends, your interest rate will switch to the card's standard rate. According to the Federal Reserve, the average credit card interest rate is currently 14.65%.

5. Consider Medical Credit Cards or Credit Lines

Like traditional credit cards, medical credit cards may offer low or 0% interest rates. What makes them different is that these cards can only be used to pay for medical expenses. This makes medical cards less flexible than traditional cards.

Know that a 0% APR credit card is not the same as a deferred interest card. With deferred interest financing (which some medical credit cards offer), all of the interest that would have accrued is added back to your balance after the promotional period ends.

This doesn't necessarily mean that you should avoid deferred interest offers. But it does mean that you should make every effort to pay down your balance before the end of the introductory period.

Final Thoughts

There are many ways to get financial help for your health care expenses. But if you've already fallen behind on your medical bills, you may be worried about how it could affect your FICO Score.

The good news is that medical debt will only impact your credit if a collections agency becomes involved. And, even so, a 180-day waiting period must pass before the credit bureaus will add the debt to your credit report.

Finally, know that the credit reporting agencies must remove any negative items related to medical debt from your report if it is later paid by your insurance company. Check your credit reports with myFICO to make sure that these special medical debt rules are being followed.

Clint Proctor

Clint Proctor is a freelance writer and founder of WalletWiseGuy.com, where he writes about how students and millennials can win with money. His work has been featured in several major publications including Business Insider, U.S News and World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Forbes.