Going to the Doctor? Be Prepared to Pay Before You Leave

eyetestGoing to the doctor always sends waves of fear through me. Not just fear of what might be wrong, but also fear of how much it will cost to find out. As much as I hate even thinking about money when I feel my health is so much more important, it’s inevitable. The cost of even the simplest of tests or procedures can be enough to radically change my financial picture.

I’m sure I’m not alone in this. In fact, we recently wrote about about how medical debt is increasingly becoming a threat to financial security. But unpaid medical debt is also becoming a thorn in the side of medical practices – causing them to find new ways to collect. The latest? Asking you to pay your bill upfront.

Doctors Office Increasingly Asking Patients to Pay Before they Leave

Before leaving the doctor’s office, everyone has to visit the counter and pay their copay and collect any necessary paperwork. However, giving patients an option to pay their bill in full later is causing financial trouble for medical practices across the US. NPR highlights the story of one such medical practice:

“In the elegant, high-ceilinged interior [of Mid State Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine Center in Louisiana], the medical practice’s 11 doctors see about 300 patients daily to bring in $10 million in revenue each year…But when practice administrator Spencer Michael started here two years ago, the business was struggling with a common problem: collecting payments from patients.

The recent economic downturn and the increasing use of high-deductible insurance plans ‘has driven patients to want to put off paying their bills,’ Michael explains. Whether it’s for a hip replacement or a broken bone, he frequently sees patients on the hook for a $3,000 to $5,000 deductible.

‘We have to be able to be the creditor,’ says Michael. ‘We’re essentially a bank at that point.’”

As a result of this increase in uncollected medical bills, medical practices like this one have strategically changed their policies in order to collect payment faster. In the case of Mid State Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine Center, that means adding another desk to pass before leaving at which someone asks if you want to pay in full that day. This desk is placed near the door so they can grab your attention before you walk out and after you’ve already paid your copay. Not only is it used as a way for medical practices to avoid unpaid bills, the person working at that desk is incentivized by a bonus to collect fees upfront. It’s worth noting that sometimes that person will still require a few days to confirm pricing, but it’s this person’s job to review the information and establish a price and payment plan if need be.

While NPR’s article highlights the story of one medical practice implementing this new strategy, there’s a good chance this will become more widespread – especially if it proves to be effective. While doctor’s offices aren’t yet requiring payment in full, in the future there’s a good chance you’ll be confronted with that inquiry before you head home.

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Upfront Medical Billing: Could This Be A Good Thing?

To be honest, my first response to this practice was emotional – how could medical offices add even more stress to being in pain or sick by pressuring patients to pay upfront? Isn’t dealing with sickness or injury bad enough – and can’t it wait until a patient has had some time to heal? Yes, I know that they need to run sustainable businesses…but like I said, it was an emotional response – not logical.

Then my brain switched over to a totally different thought: if a doctor’s office can collect on a bill right away, that would mean they have to get price quotes from the insurance company right away. Lightbulb! This could be a good thing!

Very few people on a budget can pay for medical procedures all at once. But being able to get a direct price quote and set up a payment plan before they leave could actually lift a weight off their shoulders. Have you ever played the back and forth game with an insurance company trying to figure out how much you owe? It’s not fun. Eliminating that process could be a benefit to patients while medical offices can rest assured that payment plans have been established.

Preparing for Medical Costs

Whether you pay now or pay later, medical costs are a scary beast for anyone. Aside from setting aside an emergency plan to mitigate unexpected medical costs, it’s important to review your insurance coverage so you’ll have a good understanding of the kind of costs you may see should an emergency strike. This should be done annually – don’t be scared to change a plan or even increase your premium if you think it will be better for your situation.

Preparing for medical costs can’t be done in a one-size fits all way. Consider your medical history and that of your family. Consider your financial flexibility. Find a plan that will meet your needs should emergencies strike. This kind of preparation can save your physical and financial health alike.

Image Credit: Christopher Octa

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  • Marie

    I just signed up for the free version of Ready for Zero and had to edit my account to include over $5,000 in medical bills. That’s AFTER the $1,500 I paid upfront to the doctor and hospital. I almost wanted to leave it off (pretend it didn’t exist) because it was such a downer. BUT, I had to face reality and just add it to the equation. Ignoring it won’t make it go away, that’s for sure. Hey, I think I at least met my “so called” deductible! I have an appointment tomorrow and I know it will cost me another $60 copay no matter how much I’ve already forked out. At least my results were good! :) I’d rather plan around medical expenses that be planning my funeral.

    • Shannon_ReadyForZero

      I couldn’t agree more, Marie! And GREAT job on including that amount – I completely understand not wanting to at first. (When I first signed up for RFZ, I wouldn’t include my student loans. Now I finally did as well.) Great news on getting positive results – that’s what really matters at the end of the day!