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    How to handle your medical bills

    AP/NERD WALLET – When she was 19, writer Emily Maloney found herself facing about USD50,000 in medical debt after hospital treatment for a mental health crisis. The debt followed her throughout her 20s, hurting her credit and leading to stressful calls from collection agencies.

    Her experience is all too common: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reported that about one in five United States (US) households carries medical debt. People with medical debt are more likely to face anxiety, stress or depression and avoid filling prescriptions because of the cost.

    The risk of “medical debt looms over every consumer and impacts their lives,” said Assistant Director of Consumer Credit, Payments and Deposits markets at the CFPB John McNamara.

    He added that recent changes to the way medical debt is reported by credit bureaus should help consumers: Paid medical debts will no longer show up on credit reports and no new medical debt will show up until 12 months have passed (up from six months).

    In addition, in the first half of next year, the credit bureaus will stop reporting unpaid medical debts under USD500.

    Eventually, Maloney’s debt was resolved through a combination of a helpful customer service representative and exceeding her state’s statute of limitations. She wrote a book, Cost of Living, based on her experiences. She wants to assure others facing medical debt that they can take steps to reduce it.

    “It takes time, but you can appeal the insurance company’s decision or ask (the provider) for a discount, so it’s worth a shot,” she says.

    In other words, consumers might have more power than they think. Here are some ways to exercise that power over your medical debt.

    REVIEW YOUR BILL CLOSELY

    It can be tempting to shove a large bill into the trash in frustration. But creator of An Arm and a Leg, a podcast about the cost of health care, Dan Weissmann instead recommends checking closely for errors made by the care provider or insurance company.

    “It’s an unfair amount of homework for us to do, because if you find an error, then you have to complain and invest your time, but some medical bills have errors,” he said.

    ASK YOUR PROVIDER FOR ASSISTANCE

    Many hospitals offer financial assistance to those who meet income thresholds. “If you get an amount you weren’t expecting, call the hospital and say, ‘Am I eligible for a discount?

    What is your policy on financial assistance?’” said vice president at the Healthcare Financial Management Association Richard Gundling, an association of financial executives in the health care industry.

    Hospitals often have “charity care” policies to grant a lower price or even forgive the debt altogether, but consumers may have to be aggressive in asking for them. Eligibility for the programmes varies by state and hospital, but non-profit hospitals are required to have financial assistance policies. Hospitals may also offer payment plans, so you have more time to pay.

    Hospitals can also connect you with financing options such as personal loans and medical credit cards, which can be helpful but also pose risks. The CFPB’s McNamara warns that credit cards, for example, can accrue additional interest charges.

    BE PERSISTENT AND ENLIST SUPPORT

    President of LMC Medical Claims Management in West Palm Beach, Florida Lorraine Coughlin helps people work out medical bills with insurance companies for a living. She said the number one strategy is persistence.

    “You have to make the phone call and ask questions. Don’t just make payments if you get a surprise bill,” she says. Sometimes it might take an hour or more, but making that call can save you thousands of dollars, she says.

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