August 28, 2008

How to get out of medical debt

Posted: 03:53 PM ET

One issue sure to be mentioned in Barack Obama’s acceptance speech is health care and the millions of Americans who are fighting to get out of medical debt.


A report out last month from the Commonwealth Fund found that 28 percent of the population said they were paying off medical debt in 2007, up from 21 percent in 2005.
"Two-thirds of the people who go into medical debt have insurance," said Mark Rukavina, executive director of the Access Project. "When medical debt hits, it hits very quickly. It's a jolt, and it's generally not very predictable."
"These are all honest, hardworking people," added Jessie Maurer, a medical billing advocate in West Des Moines, Iowa "This could happen to just about anybody."
By avoiding the mistakes below, you can get your medical debt under control.
Mistake No. 1: You ignore your bills
"The most dangerous thing people do when they get into debt is ignore the statements and notices," said Mary Jean Geroulo, a former hospital administrator and now a partner at Stewart and Stimmel, a health care law firm in Dallas, Texas.
"They think doctors and hospitals won't send them to collection agencies, but they absolutely will," she added.
To find an advocate, visit the Medical Billing Advocates of America, The Fairness Foundation and the National Foundation for Credit Counseling also offer help to those in debt.
Mistake No. 2: You don't look for errors in your bills
"I had a client once who was charged for a surgery she never had," said Nora Johnson, vice president of Medical Billing Advocates of America in Caldwell, West Virginia. "Another one was charged more than $5,000 for disposable gloves."
To catch errors, you have to get an itemized bill. Often, say experts, you have to ask for one.
Mistake No. 3: You don't negotiate the price down
"People think they have to pay the amount on the bill. But doctors and hospitals are very willing to negotiate," Rukavina said. "Remember, the squeaky wheel gets the grease."
Maurer, for example, says one of her clients owed $14,000 for a five-hour stay in a hospital emergency room. "She could afford to pay $4,000, so I told her, 'Show them a certified check for $4,000.' She did and told them, 'This is all I have in the world,' and they took it."
For more tips, check out my column at

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Filed under: Cohen • Empowered Patient • Health

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About this blog

Clark Howard helps you become a wise consumer. We know you're busy, and that's why Clark's tips are quick and effective. He'll arm you with the information you need to make smart choices. During these tough economic times, Clark wants to help you save more, spend less and avoid getting ripped off!