Questions and Answers about Medical, Hospitalization and Health-Care Debt

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Hospital and health-care-related bills can be some of the most difficult bills to face. They are often quite large. And they come at the worst time: when we or our loved ones are dealing with illness and physical or emotional crisis. Here are a some tips for dealing with large medical debts.

A loved one or I recently underwent surgery. The bills were shocking. There were lots of charges that had broad categories but no itemization. What exactly am I paying for?

Frequently, you don't know what you're paying for with a medical bill, and maybe the hospital is hoping that you won't find out. In any case, ask the hospital to itemize all charges. They have to legally comply.

A hospital bill is filled with cryptic codes. Do I need to know what they mean?

Contact the hospital administrator and ask him or her to review your statement. Ask him or her to tell you the meaning of every code on the bill. Reexamine the bill and make sure that you actually received the coded medications or services.

Is it possible that there are errors on the hospital bill?

The federal General Accounting Office estimates that the average hospital bill contains approximately $1,400 in errors. On your bill, look for double charges, big charges for inexpensive items such as aspirin, and for items or services that you didn't receive. If possible, while in the hospital, write down medications you receive and services rendered, so that you have a record to compare with the bill, when it comes.

I got a huge medical bill, and I don't have the money to pay it. What do I do?

Contact your hospital or doctor. Explain your circumstances. Generally, medical institutions tend to be less more lenient than banks or credit card issuers, and many will accept a partial payment or they may waive late fees and interest charges. Be sure to stay in touch with the hospital. If you do, chances are good your doctor or hospital won't send the bill for collection.

I have insurance, but it won't cover my hospital bill, and the hospital is demanding I pay. Do I have to pay?

You may not have to, but you have to put in some effort. Make an appointment with the hospital administrator, show him or her copies of the claim forms you have submitted to the insurance company, and tell him/her that you can't and won't pay the bill with your own resources. Many hospitals have an ombudsman to help patients with insurers, so ask if one is available to assist you.

Credit card companies have turned me down because of late payments reflected on my credit report. Most of these charges are related to an illness I had a few years back, and my HMO was supposed to pay them. The credit bureaus refuse to remove them.

Unfortunately, this has become a common problem. Try writing to the Federal Trade Commission, www,, to complain. If more and more people do this, maybe the FTC will act. But don't blame the credit bureau entirely; often, it is hard to tell if a collection account springs from unpaid medical bills or from a delinquent health insurance payment.

After writing to the FTC, get all the information you can about your insurance benefits and submit this material to the collection agency. It might also be worthwhile to contact the doctor or the hospital in question and explain that your credit is in trouble. And it is always worthwhile to provide documentation and an explanation, brief and concise-to your credit bureau. This will help to assure them that this is a one-time-only problem.

If my medical debt is so large that I feel I will never be able to pay it, can I get rid of it if I claim bankruptcy?

Yes, probably, but you should talk to a lawyer and get advice about your specific case.

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Friday, May 12, 2006 18:33