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Medical Debt Help: Relief Options When You Can’t Pay



Medical Debt Help: Relief Options When You Can’t Pay

Medical bills can be super confusing and hard to understand, you know? There’s so many factors that go into whether you actually owe the bill, and if so, how much. Things like your doctor, your health insurance company, and whether you qualify for financial help or “charity care” all impact your bill. Plus, there’s laws at the federal and state level that may protect you from some medical bills and debt collection. So yeah, it’s complicated!

This article will walk you through some options if you’re facing medical debt you can’t pay. We’ll talk about ways to reduce what you owe, minimize the impact on your finances, health, and future, and just generally deal with unpaid medical bills. I know it’s stressful, but hang in there – you’ve got this!

First Steps When You Get a Big Medical Bill

When the medical bills start piling up, it’s important to take action rather than ignoring it. Here’s some first steps to take:

  • Carefully review the bill for any errors. Medical bills often have mistakes – some sources say between 7% to 80% contain errors! So double check for inaccuracies.
  • Ask the provider for an itemized bill so you can understand the charges.
  • Confirm that services billed were actually received and correct.
  • Check that your insurance was billed if you have coverage.
  • Negotiate the bill if it seems too high. More on this later!

Getting the bill validated upfront can help avoid hassles down the road.

Financial Assistance Programs

If you’ve got a bill you can’t afford after reviewing it, the next step is to look into financial assistance. There are nonprofit groups and government programs that provide help paying medical bills for those in need.

For example, you can look into:

  • Medicaid – This free or low cost health coverage may cover medical bills retroactively if you qualify based on income.
  • Health insurance marketplace subsidies – You may qualify for discounted insurance and reduced medical costs if you meet income requirements.
  • Hospital charity care – Most nonprofit hospitals have financial assistance programs and discounted care available based on financial need.
  • Community health clinics – These clinics provide free or sliding scale medical services based on your ability to pay.
  • Nonprofit groups – Organizations like NeedyMeds, RxAssist, HealthWell Foundation, and others can help with bills and prescription medications.

It takes some research and asking around, but there are options out there for those struggling with medical costs. Be persistent and don’t give up!

Payment Plans

If you can’t get financial assistance and owe a medical bill you can’t immediately pay in full, a payment plan can help. Payment plans allow you to pay what you can over time until it’s paid off.

Most medical providers will work with you to set up a reasonable payment plan based on your financial situation. Nonprofit hospitals are required to provide payment plans for those in need.

When setting up a payment plan:

  • Be honest about what you can afford to pay each month.
  • Get any payment plan agreement in writing before paying.
  • Make sure it states they will not send the debt to collections as long as you pay.
  • Send payments on time to avoid interest or late fees.

Payment plans allow you to resolve the debt responsibly without damaging your finances or credit.

Medical Credit Cards and Loans

Medical credit cards and personal loans are another way to pay large medical bills over time. They give you a fixed monthly payment and interest rate.

Pros of medical credit include:

  • Consolidating multiple medical bills into one payment
  • Fixed interest rates (usually lower than a regular credit card)
  • Can build your credit if managed responsibly

Cons to be aware of:

  • Credit checks required, so you need decent credit to qualify
  • High fees and interest rates if you miss payments
  • May not be able to lower the balance – what you borrow is what you pay

So weigh the pros and cons carefully when considering a medical credit card or loan. Shop around for the best rates and terms, and make sure you can make the monthly payments.

Negotiating Medical Debt

Negotiating unpaid medical bills is possible in many cases. Medical providers would often rather make a deal than get nothing if you truly can’t pay.

Tips for negotiating medical debt:

  • Contact the billing office – Ask what options they have for reducing bills for those in financial hardship.
  • Explain your financial situation – Documentation of income, expenses, and inability to pay often help.
  • Ask for detailed bill and challenge any errors – Mistakes could lower what you owe.
  • Offer partial payment – Maybe 20% to 50% of the amount due could settle it.
  • Request they lower the bill and set up a payment plan – Many will negotiate if payments are made.
  • Mention bankruptcy or legal aid as a last resort – The threat of nonpayment may motivate them to reduce the debt.

With patience and persistence, you may be able to negotiate medical bills down significantly or even eliminate them entirely. It’s definitely worth trying before paying in full.

Bankruptcy for Medical Debt

Filing for bankruptcy is a last resort option if you have excessive medical debt you simply can’t pay. Medical bills are one of the most common reasons Americans file for bankruptcy.

There’s two main types of bankruptcy that can help with medical debt:

  • Chapter 7 Bankruptcy – This liquidates your assets to pay back creditors, then discharges remaining debts including medical bills. You get to keep exempt assets.
  • Chapter 13 Bankruptcy – This sets up a 3-5 year repayment plan using your income, then discharges remaining debt left after payments are done.

Pros of discharging medical debt through bankruptcy:

  • Medical debt is eliminated
  • Collection calls and legal actions must stop
  • Can get a fresh financial start

Cons to think about:

  • Damages credit – Will stay on your credit report for 7-10 years
  • Your assets may be liquidated in Chapter 7 to repay creditors
  • Ongoing bankruptcy fees and paperwork

Talk to a bankruptcy attorney to discuss your specific situation before filing. But when medical debt becomes unmanageable, bankruptcy can provide a path to move forward.

Avoiding Medical Collections

If you are unable to resolve or pay down medical debt, it will likely go to collections at some point. Medical bills on your credit report can lower your score significantly.

Here are some tips to handle medical collections and minimize the credit impact:

  • Don’t ignore calls – Explain your situation and try to negotiate payment options.
  • Keep records of all calls and correspondence.
  • Confirm validity of debt – Collections agencies often have incorrect info.
  • Negotiate pay-for-delete – Offer payment in exchange for removing from your credit report.
  • Dispute inaccurate info – You can dispute errors on your credit report.
  • Know your rights – Debt collectors cannot harass or threaten legal action if you legitimately cannot pay.

Dealing with medical collections takes persistence, but you have rights. Don’t let collectors intimidate you.

Other Medical Debt Strategies

Here are a few other options for managing medical debt:

  • Request an interest rate reduction – This lowers the amount you pay over time.
  • Apply for hospital charity care retroactively – Even if already sent to collections, the hospital may forgive it.
  • Cash in life insurance – You may be able to get some cash value from a whole life policy.
  • Borrow from retirement accounts – You can take loans from 401k’s or IRA’s, with strict repayment terms.
  • Use home equity – A home equity loan or line of credit can provide funds to pay medical debt.
  • Seek help from a nonprofit credit counselor – They help manage debt and negotiate with creditors.

Explore all options and get professional advice when needed. With persistence and creativity, you can take control of medical debt.

In Summary

Medical debt can feel overwhelming but there are always options, even when you can’t pay in full. The key is to:

  • Act quickly to understand the bill and reduce errors
  • Seek assistance programs that provide financial help
  • Set up manageable payment plans
  • Negotiate with providers to lower or eliminate debt
  • Consider medical credit cards and loans carefully
  • Know your rights with debt collectors
  • Explore every option, like bankruptcy or borrowing, if needed

Most importantly, don’t ignore medical bills. Reach out early to healthcare providers and creditors, explain your situation, and take control of your debt. There are solutions available with persistence and creativity.


Delancey Street is here for you

Our team is available always to help you. Regardless of whether you need advice, or just want to run a scenario by us. We take pride in the fact our team loves working with our clients - and truly cares about their financial and mental wellbeing.

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