How to get help paying medical bills

Couple sitting on couch at home, looking up how to get help with medical bills Image: Couple sitting on couch at home, looking up how to get help with medical bills

In a Nutshell

Are you facing mounting medical debt and not sure how you’re going to pay for it? Unpaid medical bills could show up on your credit reports and affect your credit scores. But the good news is that you might be able to get help with your medical bills by working out a payment plan with your healthcare provider, negotiating a lower price or applying for financial assistance.

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If you need help with medical bills, you may have options to explore.

You may be able to work out a payment plan with the healthcare provider, negotiate the amount you owe or qualify for a financial assistance program. While dealing with medical bills can be stressful, taking action can help improve your chances of avoiding damage to your credit or — worse — a lawsuit.

Let’s take a look at your potential options for getting help with medical bills.



What happens if I don’t pay my medical bills?

If you don’t pay your doctor’s office or the hospital, your healthcare provider may eventually send your unpaid bills to a collections agency. Some providers may send your bill to collections as soon as 30 days after it’s due, while others may wait 60, 90 or even 180 days. But none of the three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian or TransUnion — will list unpaid medical debt on your credit reports until you’re at least 180 days late.

Similar to if you stopped paying your credit card bill, not paying medical bills can damage your credit. If your medical bills go unpaid for more than 180 days, the collection account could stick around on your credit reports for seven years — even if you eventually pay off the debt before then. And since your payment history is one of the biggest factors in determining your credit scores, your scores could take a hit.  

This could make it more difficult to qualify for future loans or credit. And if you do get approved, you’ll likely be charged higher interest rates and fees.

In addition to the impact on your credit, the collections agency might file a lawsuit to collect on your medical debt. If you ignore the lawsuit, a court can enter a judgment against you for what you owe. Depending on your state, the creditor may be able to garnish your wages or put a lien on your property. If you need to consult an attorney, you can search for a legal aid office in your area.

How can I get help with medical bills?

The good news is you might be able to get help paying for your medical expenses. Here are a few steps you can take to address your medical debt.

1. Review the bill for accuracy

Before you pay a dime, it’s a good idea to take a closer look at the medical bill. Here are some questions to ask yourself.

Are you being charged for medical care that you thought your health insurance company would cover?

It might be worth calling your insurer to understand your insurance coverage and file a formal appeal if you don’t agree with their reason for not covering the expense. There’s no guarantee they’ll side with you, but it’s worth a shot. If your insurance company ends up paying a past-due medical bill that’s gone to collections, the credit bureaus could remove that collections account from your credit reports.

Is it a duplicate bill?

If you’ve received multiple medical bills recently, double check to make sure it’s not a duplicate bill that you’ve already paid. If you’re unsure, check your bank records to see if you’ve already made a payment in that amount. If you have, call the healthcare provider to confirm that it’s received payment.

Are there incorrect charges?

If you don’t remember going to the hospital or scheduling a doctor’s appointment, you might have been billed by mistake. Check the date of service on the bill and call the healthcare provider if you didn’t receive treatment on that date. For larger hospital bills, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau suggests asking for an itemized bill so you can see what you’re being charged for each service. If a cost for a particular service seems high, ask your healthcare provider’s billing office about it. A typo or medical coding error could result in a higher charge than you should pay.

If it turns out that the bill is an error but the medical debt has already gone into collections, you can dispute the error on your credit reports.

How to remove medical collections from credit reports

2. Try to negotiate your bill

Your healthcare provider may consider negotiating the amount you owe. Ask if they would lower your bill if you paid the whole amount upfront or in cash. If you don’t have insurance or your insurance company won’t cover the bill, your provider may be willing to offer a lower rate if you’re paying out of pocket.

3. Set up a payment plan

If you can’t afford to pay your medical costs all at once, your healthcare provider might be willing to work with you to set up a payment plan where you pay the bill in installments.

But before you agree to a payment arrangement, make sure you understand what the total cost will be. Will the provider charge you interest or any additional fees as part of the payment plan? The CFPB recommends that you get the repayment plan in writing and request the following:

  • That the provider doesn’t charge interest
  • That the debt isn’t turned over to a collection agency
  • That you won’t be required to make a full payment if you’re late or miss a payment on the payment plan

4. See if you qualify for financial assistance

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires nonprofit hospitals to offer a financial assistance program to qualifying patients who receive emergency or medically necessary care.

These programs vary by hospital, but the hospital must notify you of these financial assistance programs when you’re admitted or discharged. It must also provide information about the program, eligibility requirements and application process on its website, and list that website and a contact phone number on your billing statement.

Other options for paying medical bills

If your medical provider won’t agree to a payment plan and you don’t qualify for financial assistance, there are a few other ways you might be able to pay your medical bills.

Credit card with a promotional APR

A credit card with a low promotional annual percentage rate, or APR, could buy you some time to pay your medical debt.

If you have excellent credit, you might qualify for a credit card with a 0% intro APR on purchases. Just make sure you take note of how long the intro APR lasts — you could be hit with expensive interest charges if you don’t pay your full balance before it ends, which could make your financial situation worse. And be aware that even during the 0% intro APR period, you’ll still be required to make the minimum payment each month if you carry a balance.

Medical credit card

A medical credit card could be used to pay for eligible medical expenses and dental care at participating healthcare providers. While these cards help pay for care that’s not covered by health insurance, they can come with high APRs, which may increase how much you end up paying for care.

These cards may also offer what’s known as deferred interest for a certain period of time — but these offers can be tricky. On the surface, they sound good because you won’t be charged interest if you pay off the balance in time. But if you don’t pay back the full amount before the due date, you’ll be charged interest on the entire balance — including the amount you already paid for.

Before getting a medical credit card, be sure to shop around and compare the terms against other credit cards that may have lower APRs and even a promotional APR period.

Personal loan

If you’re dealing with a substantial amount of medical debt, a personal loan may be an option for you. With a personal loan, you make equal monthly payments that consist of principal and interest over a set period of time.

The average personal loan interest rate is lower than the average credit card interest rate, so it may be a less expensive option if you can qualify for a good rate. But if your credit isn’t perfect, rates could reach as high as 36% for traditional loans, and even higher for payday loans. Be sure to shop around and compare your options to identify the best financial product for your needs.


Next steps

If you need help paying medical bills, be sure to explore all your options for financial help — and take action as soon as possible to help avoid collections and a negative impact on your credit.

It might also be worth looking into federal programs that provide financial aid for healthcare costs. Here are a few.

  • Children’s Health Insurance Program: Provides free or low-cost health coverage for children of eligible families who can’t afford health insurance and don’t get it through their employer. InsureKidsNow.gov has more information about CHIP programs and dental providers by state.
  • Medicaid: Provides free or low-cost health coverage for people who can’t afford health insurance and don’t get it through their employer. To see if you qualify, visit healthcare.gov.
  • Medicare: Helps people over age 65 or living with a disability pay for healthcare. Visit medicare.gov to find out if you’re eligible.

Community health centers also offer low-cost medical services to people who don’t qualify for federal programs but can’t afford to pay for a health insurance policy. At these centers, the amount you pay usually depends on your income. Use the Health Resources & Services Administration health center locator tool to search for a community health center near you.


About the author: Tim Devaney is a personal finance writer and credit card expert at Credit Karma. He’s a longtime journalist who prides himself on being a good storyteller who can explain complex information in an easily digestible wa… Read more.