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MEDICAL DEBT

Note: All bolded + italicized words are defined in our glossary of terms at the top of this page.

Believe it or not, it is possible to get your medical debt reduced to a manageable amount or even reduced to $0.  These 5 Tips can help you to get started.  

 

Tip 1 – Seek help immediately… 

  • If your debt is from a hospital, you may qualify for help under the hospital’s financial assistance policy.  It is called “charity care” or “medical indigence”.  If you qualify, hospitals may reduce your bill considerably (for example 70%) or even forgive it entirely.   

    • To learn more, click on “Hospital Charity Care” at the top menu.

    • Also read Tip 2 below about negotiating with a hospital. 

  • When you received your care, did anyone help you apply for TennCare or CoverKids?  If so, did you get a decision about your eligibility?   

    • We may be able to help if: 

      • You applied and never got a decision on your eligibility. 

      • You were denied, but you think you are eligible. 

      • Your coverage start date is wrong.   

      • Just fill out our “Request Help” form by clicking here. 

 

Tip 2 – Negotiate the amount that you owe… 

There is nothing wrong with trying to negotiate a lower price for the care that you received from your healthcare provider – even after you received the care.  This may not be easy to do, but it is worth trying!  

  • If your debt is from another healthcare provider besides a hospital, try to negotiate your bill lower.   

    • It is important to remember to communicate with the healthcare provider and ask for discounts and any financial assistance that may be available.   

    • Healthcare providers may not automatically apply discounts to your bill or inform you about available financial assistance.  You need to ask. 

    • Discuss what you can afford to pay and over what period of time.  This may prevent them from sending your account to a debt collection company. 

  • If your debt is from a hospital AND you don’t qualify for financial assistance, ask for a discount. 

    • You may be told that price you are being charged for a medical procedure is based on the hospital’s “chargemaster” or “charge description master” (CDM).   

    • Chargemaster defined – it is a listing of items prices for services, procedures, equipment fees, drugs and supplies including diagnostic evaluations.  It covers everything a hospital can charge.  Items on the chargemaster as also assigned a billing code along with a price that is used to generate your bill. 

      • It contains highly inflated prices sometimes several times the actual cost to the hospital.  It is used by hospitals to negotiate actual price health insurance companies will pay for the service. 

      • Typically, it isn’t made available to the public. However, some states are considering legislation that would make hospitals disclose their chargemaster to the state to be published online for the public.  

    • If you are being charged the chargemaster price, ask what Medicare, TennCare and private insurance pays for the same service.   

    • Find out if the price you were charged was reasonable.  Use these sources to compare prices: 

      • Healthcare Bluebook – click here

      • Fair Health Consumer – click here

 

Tip 3 – Don’t pay medical debt with a credit card… 

  • When you pay with a credit card, you turn medical debt into credit card debt.  This is important for several reasons: 

    • Paying by a credit card means the healthcare provider has been paid so there is no incentive for the healthcare provider to negotiate your bill lower.  

    • Credit card companies charge late fees and usually charge higher interest rates.  Healthcare providers usually don’t charge late fees and have a low interest rates. 

    • You are less likely to be sued on medical debt than credit card debt. 

    • Credit card debt and medical debt are NOT treated the same by credit reporting agencies.   

      • Past due credit card bills affect your credit score immediately, medical debt takes 6 months to show up on your credit report. 

  • Avoid using “medical” credit cards because unpaid balances will be treated as credit card debt – not medical debt. 

 

Tip 4 – Medical debt is not treated like other types of debt… 

Generally, healthcare providers don’t report your unpaid medical bills to a credit reporting agency or credit bureau.  Instead, they refer past due accounts to a debt collection company.  These companies may decide to report your debt to the credit bureaus.  Here is what you need to know. 

  • Federal law stops credit bureaus from putting medical debt on your credit report until it is past due for 6 months.  This gives you time to dispute the bill or negotiate a lower price with your healthcare provider. 

  • After 7 years, medical debt is removed from your credit report. 

  • Once your medical debt is paid, it is removed from your credit report. 

  • According to IRS rules, non-profit hospitals must make reasonable efforts to determine if you are eligible for charity care before reporting your debt to the credit bureaus.  To be safe, it is great to ask if you qualify for financial assistance or charity care. 

    • You usually have 8 months from when you first received the bill to request financial assistance. 

    • To learn more, click on “Hospital Charity Care” at the top menu. 

 

Tip 5 – Medical Debt is not as urgent for you to pay as your necessary living expenses. 

Keeping a roof over your head, heat in your home, food on the table and transportation to work are very important.  You should pay these bills first before paying off your medical debt.  This does NOT mean ignoring your medical debt.  Instead, be smart with the income that you have.  

  • Remember, asking for help as soon as possible and talking to your healthcare provider about financial situation is very important.  Your efforts may slow the collection process, and even reduce the amount that you owe.  (see Tip 1 Above) 

  • Failing to pay your rent/mortgage, utilities or your car loan may lead to eviction, foreclosure, termination of services and/or repossession of your car. The consequences for not paying these bills may be more severe. 

  • Unlike medical debt, other types of debt can immediately hurt your credit report.  This is not true with medical debt. 

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