You’ve opened the mailbox and you see a hospital bill. You know the one, the one that says you owe $3,258.29. Or is it $2,450.39? It’s no secret that medical billing is confusing, an entire degree dedicated to it. The good news is, paying a medical bill is not like buying a drink at the gas station. Most healthcare bills are negotiable.
“There is no illness that is not exacerbated by stress.” – Allan Lokos
Take a breath. The only thing worse than a high medical bill is another high medical bill. Dealing with medical billing has become a way of life for many. Going to have a baby? You have medical bills. Have a chronic illness requiring continuous treatment? You have medical bills. Accident prone or work in a hazardous environment? You have medical bills. Adding stress only complicates the matter. Here are some ways to navigate through your medical bills and a few tips on negotiating the price you pay.
I know what you are saying, “If I knew how to negotiate a medical bill I wouldn’t be reading this blog post…” Here are a few things that will help you start navigating your bill.
Learn to Decipher Medical Bills
Similar to decoding the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt, medical bills have a language of their own. You don’t have to know everything about the bill but “deer in the headlights” is not a good look. Get to know the general parts of the bill and some of the vernacular that goes with it.
Here is a checklist of things to check:
- Double check your address, the insurance provider info, and the dates of service. Unsurprisingly, errors in these fields can complicate medical expenses.
- Make sure you have a detailed and itemized bill. The first, and sometimes only, invoice you will receive is a summary of charges. You will need an itemized bill to check for any mistakes (GASP!!) in the billing.
- Look for duplicate items, procedures and items you know didn’t occur. Look for line items you don’t quite understand. Your billing office should be more than willing to explain anything you don’t quite understand.
- Do the math. Double checking that the total at the bottom is the sum of each item is always good practice.
Want a more detailed look at how to read a medical bill? Nerd Wallet has a more in-depth post on the various sections of a medical bill, and an explanation of the codes behind the charges.
Become Familiar With Procedure Costs In Your Area
Like gas prices, the specific cost of medical appointments and procedures can vary widely depending on where you are. You will be able to spot inconsistencies while looking through your medical bills if you know what things should cost in your area. We have a great list of medical resources for checking local prescription costs as well as medical procedures and treatments.
You Never Know Until You Ask
Ask for a discount. Easy as that. Ok, it’s not always that easy. As we mentioned before, medical costs are not set in stone. If you are shopping for a loaf of bread and you see that it costs $4.52 you know that when you check out, you will owe the cashier $4.52. Medical offices negotiate prices a lot. Often there are discounts for financial status, discounts on prescription drugs, price adjustments through provider networks, a variety of other discounts are available, but you have to be willing to ask.
What Do I Ask?
There are many routes you can take when negotiating your medical bills. You’ll need to evaluate your approach before you begin negotiations. Here are some of the angles you can choose when speaking with your billing office:
- Leverage your ability or inability to pay. Your doctor wants to get paid, even if it’s only a percentage of what you owe. Come prepared to prove that you want to pay, but you can’t pay the full price due to finances.
- Make sure the provider knows that you are willing to pay a reasonable price for their services. Negotiating is smoother if both parties understand there is a mutual desire for the outcome to be fair.
- If you have the financial ability to pay the full amount of the negotiated price, this is a valid bargaining chip. If the provider knows they will be receiving the payment immediately, they will gladly discount the cost of the service.
- As a last resort option, if you know you can’t afford to pay the bill upfront. Zero interest financing is sometimes available through the provider or an organization the provider has a relationship with.
- Look for out-of-network costs. Providers are more likely to negotiate your price when you were billed at an out-of-network rate (rather than an in-network rate).
How Do I Ask?
“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” – Thumper’s Dad
Looking past the double negative, Thumper’s Dad (from Disney’s Bambi) got it right. Medical bills can be more than frustrating, but being rude on the phone when talking to someone you’re trying to negotiate with will get you nowhere fast. Try to be firm but objective while speaking with the human on the other side of the phone. Suggest alternative prices that are reasonable and stick to them wherever possible.
This Sounds Like a Lot of Work…
If after reading this article you’re saying to yourself, “Maybe paying full price isn’t all that bad.” you are in luck. There are services available specifically for negotiating medical bills. In fact, your employer may already have a relationship with one of these providers. Be sure to talk with your HR department to find out if Medical Bill Advocacy services are provided through your benefits package. If you are looking on your own, one option to consider is Medical Cost Advocate. Their Medical billing advocates will negotiate on your behalf. If they can’t save you money, it’s free. If they find savings, you pay a percent of the savings.
You Can Do It!
Providers want their money. Most people are glad to pay for a service they needed. Negotiating a medical bill is normal, and there are many resources available to get the job done. Take the time to do your research, gather your thoughts and your finances, and make the call. Good luck in your negotiations. We hope you will come to terms with your provider. You will walk away knowing you got a fair price, and your doctor will be happy they kept a patient.