5 Pitfalls of Medical Debt

financial health checkDo you remember the old Pitfall video game?  The idea was to navigate a challenging jungle and avoid obstacles, like quicksand and rattlesnakes.

As we navigate the challenging world of healthcare, we must avoid financial pitfalls that lurk just out of sight.

Rare are the days of $10 co-pays and low annual deductibles.   Today’s environment is becoming so much more complex and expensive.  Here are some healthcare-related financial pitfalls to avoid:

  1. Pitfall #1 – Ignoring Your Bills

Many people would rather not deal with medical bills, leaving them unopened or even throwing them in the trash.  Not responding to medical bills may result in penalty fees, collection calls, legal action, damage to your credit score, or even refusal of medical services.

Don’t ignore your medical bills.  Call the number on your bill and talk to them.  Tell them you want to work out a payment plan.

It is usually easier to work with your service provider rather than a collections company.

  1. Pitfall #2 – Using Credit to Pay Bills You Can’t Afford

If you can’t afford to cover the cost of a medical bill, you may be tempted to put it on a credit card.  Don’t do it!  You’re simply exchanging the medical debt for a credit card debt and a much higher interest rate.  Transferring medical debt to a credit card will quickly cause the debt amount to grow, unless you can afford to pay off the entire bill right away.

Also don’t be tempted to pay medical debt with a Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC).  In addition to growing the debt, this option could potentially put your home in danger if you are no longer able to maintain minimum payments.

Did you know most medical collections will not charge any interest as long as you make the minimum payment?  Work with your medical provider and request a payment plan.

  1. Pitfall #3 – Putting Off Medical Procedures

Don’t risk your health by putting off critical medical treatment.  If the procedure is elective, talk to your doctor and find out the potential health consequences of delaying treatment.  If possible, begin planning for the expense.  Ask your insurance company to conduct a pre-treatment estimate so you understand how much money you will need.

Develop a plan for setting some money aside each month.  Do you have an expense you could do without for a short time like cable, or an extracurricular activity?  You may have to get creative.

  1. Pitfall #4 – Not Fully Understanding Coverage and Costs

Medical insurance can be confusing.  Make sure you understand your insurance coverage, out of pocket costs, copays, etc.  If your insurance refuses to pay for a claim, find out why.

Carefully evaluate all insurance plans if you are nearing the open enrollment period, especially if you think you may incur medical expenses in the upcoming year.   Evaluate premium costs, deductibles and tax saving options.  If you’re considering a high-deductible plan, using a Health Savings Account (HSA) is strongly recommended.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions.  If you have the slightest uncertainty, contact your insurance company.

  1. Pitfall #5 – Prioritizing Medical Bills Over Other Debts

It is important to pay all bills.  However, if you can’t afford to pay all of your bills, decide which are the highest priority.  Basic living expenses are most important — food, housing, child care, transportation to work, medicine and taxes are top priorities.

If you don’t have enough money to meet your obligations, figure out how much you can afford to pay.  Then contact your creditors and explain the situation.  Request a payment plan, but don’t commit to a payment amount unless  you know you can afford it.

Avoiding these medical debt pitfalls isn’t always easy.  You can’t always control your physical health, but you can control how you prepare and react.  Research your options, ask questions, map out a plan, and ask for help if necessary.  It’s a jungle out there!

If you need additional debt management assistance, reach out to a non-profit credit organization like GreenPath Financial Wellness.

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