How To Pay Medical Bills When You Don’t Have Insurance
Dan Rafter5-minute read
September 21, 2020
Health insurance can be expensive, especially if your employer doesn’t provide it for you. What if you can’t afford the monthly premiums? And what happens if you need medical attention? How can you pay for your medical bills if you don’t have health insurance coverage?
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. Both health insurance and medical care are expensive in the United States. Covering medical bills when you lack insurance will require a combination of shopping for lower-cost care, negotiating payment plans and even turning to crowdfunding sites for donations.
And some bills? They might prove too big to cover if you lack health insurance.
How Do You Pay For Medical Bills?
Most people turn to health insurance to cover larger medical bills. And many people rely on insurance provided by their employers.
This insurance is less expensive than individual policies that people buy for themselves. That’s because employers can spread the cost of health insurance out over a large pool of employees. Most employees will pay for insurance coverage with money deducted out of their paychecks. But not all employees will need insurance to cover large medical bills. This allows employers to offer this type of medical coverage at lower costs.
Individual policies, though, are far more costly, something that is a problem if your employer doesn’t offer health insurance or if you are unemployed. According to eHealth, the average monthly cost of an individual health insurance policy – one not provided by an employer – was $440 in 2018. The average cost for an individual health insurance plan for a family was even higher, coming in at $1,168 a month.
How Much Is A Hospital Visit Without Health Insurance?
Then there’s the high cost of medical care. HRB Solutions, a provider of health care benefits to employers and employees, said in 2018 that a regular, routine appointment with a primary care doctor can cost from $150 to $300 without insurance. And that's without any tests involved.
HRB said that a visit to a hospital emergency room if you lack health insurance can cost from $375 to more than $700.
Healthcare.gov provides some additional numbers, saying that the cost to fix a broken leg can be as high as $7,500, while the average cost of a 3-day hospital stay is about $30,000.
And for more serious issues? Health care costs can rise to unaffordable heights. HealthCare.gov says that comprehensive cancer care can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
What Happens If You Don’t Pay Your Medical Bills?
Many doctors won’t accept new patients who don’t have health insurance. But you do have rights if you go to a hospital emergency room for care.
According to the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, a federal law, anyone who goes to an emergency department for treatment of a medical emergency is guaranteed treatment, even if they don't have health insurance and can't afford to pay for their care.
The key here is the definition of a medical emergency. The law defines an emergency as an incident in which the absence of medical attention could place an individual's health in serious jeopardy, result in serious impairment to bodily functions or result in the serious dysfunction of bodily organs. Pregnant women who visit an emergency room must be treated until the delivery is complete.
If you go to an emergency room for a medical condition that doesn't meet this definition, you can still be turned away without seeing a doctor.
Emergency room treatment isn't free. Once you are treated, the hospital will send you a medical bill. If you don't pay up by the deadline, you might face late fees that will increase your debt. If you ignore your bill long enough, your medical provider might send your account into collection, meaning that a debt collector might begin calling.
Not paying your medical bills won't initially hurt your three-digit credit score. But once your bill is sent to collection, this information will be shared with the three national credit bureaus of Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. This will cause your credit score to drop.
If a debt collector doesn't convince you to pay, the medical provider might sue you. A court can take legal action against you, including garnishing your wages. If this happens, money will be taken from your paycheck and used to pay down your debt.
Fortunately, you can't go to jail, even if you never pay your medical debt. The United States does not allow people to be jailed for nonpayment of bills.
Where Can I Get Financial Help For Medical Bills?
If you can’t afford to pay your medical debt, you do have options. Your best bet is to try to work with your medical provider directly.
Maybe you can afford to pay part of your bill but not all of it. You can ask your medical provider for a lower total payment. Your provider isn’t required to negotiate, of course, but it might be willing to do so if it means getting at least some money from you. A partial payment is better than no payment at all.
You might also be able to work out a payment plan with your medical provider. This way, you can pay what you can afford each month in smaller chunks. Call your provider and ask if a payment plan is available. Just make sure you can afford the monthly payments before agreeing to any plan.
You might also be able to afford more insurance coverage than you think. Visit the home page of the Affordable Care Act to search for insurance policies. You might find a health insurance plan that does fit into your budget.
Alice Stevens, Senior Content Strategist with Pleasant Grove, Utah, review site BestCompany.com, understands the challenges consumers face when it comes to paying for health insurance and medical care. She manages the health insurance content for the site.
She recommends that consumers shop around before seeking medical attention. This could mean contacting hospitals, medical testing centers, clinics and doctors to determine how much they'll charge for specific services. You might also work with a cash-only doctor. These doctors don't work with insurance and only accept cash for their services. You might be able to work out a better price for tests and treatments with such a physician.
"Compare the costs," Stevens said. "You can also try to negotiate prices with the hospital. Just be sure to get any agreement in writing."
Adria Gross, the founder of Monroe, New York-based MedWise Insurance Advocacy and a New York State-licensed insurance broker and consultant, said that consumers should be willing to negotiate for lower medical costs before they schedule an appointment. They should also take a close look at the bills they receive. If a bill seems particularly high, it's OK to question it, Gross said. Medical providers might be willing to lower their fees if confronted on them.
Gross points to recent clients in New York City. A doctor performed emergency surgery on the clients' son, and the clients didn't have health insurance. The clients showed their bill to Gross, a bill that seemed too high. Gross called the medical provider and negotiated a reduction in the bill of 25%.
Gross said that hospitals and doctors are often willing to set up payment plans too for their patients who lack medical insurance.
"You have to ask for what you want," Gross said. "You might be surprised at how many hospitals and doctors will make allowances for people who lack medical insurance."
You might also consider taking out a personal loan to help cover your medical expenses. Some companies specialize in health care financing, but it's possible to find personal loans with a wide range of banks and financing companies. Just make sure the loan isn't too expensive. It's best to shop around for loans with the lowest interest rates and fees. Understand too that the higher your three-digit credit score, the lower your interest rate will tend to be on any loan product. You can learn more about credit scores at Rocket HQ.
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