All it takes is a brief illness or a semi-serious accident and your mailbox begins filling with ugly medical bills. Even if you have health insurance, there’s usually a big deductible to be met. If illness kept you from working, you’ll also experience the double whammy of big bills and less pay — if you have a job, that is.
The last time I got caught in this bind, I picked up the phone and opened up talks with the providers. As it turned out, negotiating medical bills wasn’t all that hard, all though it did take a certain amount of gumption. While some places were hard core about payments — insisting on their pound of flesh within 30 days — others patiently listened to my pleas and agreed to reduce their fees or set up an affordable, interest-free payment plan.
Read on for nine lessons I learned on my path back to financial solvency.
1. Don’t Be Shy
It’s hard to ask for assistance, but with so many people in trouble these days, yours is a story the provider has likely heard many times before. If possible, talk directly to your doctor about your financial situation before commencing care. I’ve had physicians cut their fees in half or waive charges entirely after talking with them in the examination room.
If you’re not comfortable talking with your provider, make friends with the billing manager. Most are authorized to offer a discount of 10 to 30 percent or establish a payment plan, usually without interest.
2. Do It Now
The longer you wait, the less patient the provider is going to be. Medical billing departments look more favorably upon those who ‘fess up and admit they need some assistance early on in the process. Get on the phone or write a letter as soon as you receive the first bill. Including a token payment will also help pave the way to better relations. Remember to document all your interactions with providers and any payments you’ve made.
3. Break Down the Bill
Request a detailed bill and examine each charge to make sure you actually received the specified care. Knowing the cost break down also helps understand where you can ask for discounts.
4. Work With the Boss
Always deal with the person who has authority to provide a discount. In a small office, this might be the head of the practice. Large hospitals may grant such authority to their account reps, although you may still want to work with the billing manager.
5. Act Like Medicare
Health insurance companies and Medicare negotiate cheaper rates: Perhaps you can piggy-back on their price break. Call the provider’s billing department and explain you’d like to pay the lowest rate they offer, then see if they’ll bite. The truth is, very few people actually pay 100 percent of their hospital charges.
6. Offer to Pay With Cash
Pay with cash and you’ll make the life of the billing department much easier. They won’t have to send out bills, deal with checks, process credit card payments or wait for payment. You can also offer to pay just a portion of the bill in cash — preferably more than 50 percent — in exchange for a discount. Offer too little, such as 30 percent, however, and your awful won’t be taken as seriously.
7. Make a Counteroffer
Don’t think of it as bargaining for a better deal: It’s really more like negotiating for an equitable settlement. If the first offer made by the billing department is still out of your range, make a counteroffer. Offer to change the repayment time period, amount of each payment, or method of payment.
8. Look For Medical Bill Assistance
If your situation is truly dire or your bill very large, you may qualify for charity care. Some states and non-profit organizations offer assistance, but you’ll have to show proof of your income and hardship. Hospital billing departments often will aid patients in applying for state aid. Check with your county social services for other programs.
9. Don’t Give Up
It’s called a negotiation for a reason. It takes gumption to keep plugging away, but the worst that can happen is they’ll say “no.” Just make sure those bills don’t hit collections before you begin dealing with them.
Have you ever successfully negotiated a medical bill and, if so, how did you do it?
This content was originally published here.