What Happens If I Can’t Pay My Medical Bills?


One accident or illness can change your entire life. And I’m not just talking about the impact on your physical health, but your financial health as well. Even if you do everything right, medical bills can throw your finances into chaos. With medical bills the single biggest factor in bankruptcy in the United States, here are a few actions you can take if you find yourself facing a medical bill beyond your ability to pay.


You really don’t want your medical bill to go to collections. Even if you receive a shocking hospitalization bill in the five or six digits, you need to talk to your doctor or hospital immediately. Don’t ignore your bill!

But before you talk to your healthcare providers, make sure you go in with all of your documents and itemized bills detailing every single procedure or charge. You want to be prepared. In some cases, you may be able to negotiate (more on this below). Communicating will help you avoid exorbitant costs and pay off any medical debt more easily.

Be Aware of Costs

While you can’t prepare for all emergencies, you can be pro-active about minimizing your costs. For non-emergency situations, ask the doctor what a procedure or test will cost. Make sure you know if it will be covered. If you have insurance, make sure you follow the arcane rules: getting the doctor to call in for pre-authorization, etc. If you don’t have insurance, ask if they will work with you to reduce the cost. Offer to pay in cash if they will lower the price. Many doctors will be happy to do so.

Examine Your Bill

When you receive your bill, look it over with a fine-tooth comb. Are there any errors? Double billings? Did you actually receive all of the care that’s being billed? Check it over and make sure you aren’t being billed for more than what you actually This is especially important with hospitalization bills where you’re charged for everything from aspirin to using the surgery room.

Work Out A Payment Plan

With the exorbitant rates being charged, hospitals are used to patients not being able to pay. Call up the billing department and ask to set up a regular payment plan. The advantage of this is that you can work out the payment on your terms. When I had a large out-of-pocket payment, I set up a payment plan to pay off the bill in installments of $25 a month, because that’s what I could contribute at the time. If you need to keep track of monthly payments, you can always use the free ReadyForZero tool.

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Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate

One of the reasons hospital bills are so high is because hospitals don’t expect to recoup all of the costs of care. Costs are also heavily inflated–for instance, standard Tylenol or aspirin at a hospital will be far beyond what you pay at even the fanciest of pharmacies. So don’t be afraid to negotiate your costs down–many hospitals will accept a lump payment below what the scary numbers on the bill say to get any kind of payment at all. Get your negotiated payment in writing

Get Help

If you are an uninsured or low-income patient, you may also qualify to have your medical bills covered under the hospital’s charity program.

Talk to the patient liaison or ombudsman at your hospital. Explain to them your financial situation–in many cases people simply can’t afford to pay the enormous bills. You may get your medical bills discounted–or even written off entirely.

If talking to the patient liaison or ombudsman doesn’t work, you can also try working with a paid patient advocate. These are people who help guide you through the maze of medical bills and codes and work on your behalf to lower your bill. While they charge an hourly fee (average rate of $125) or a percentage of savings earned, you may find this well worth it if your patient advocate is able to save you tens of thousands of dollars off your bill.


You can also try fundraising to pay off your medical bills. There are a number of sites that are essentially Kickstarter for medical expenses, where the kindness of strangers is relied upon to help defray your costs. Give Forward and Go Fund Me are both sites that allow anyone to create an individual fundraising page and explain what your medical situation is. Both sites take a percentage of funds raised.

Whatever your case is, or however large or small the amount, don’t despair. There is help available for your medical expenses.

Image credit: bialasiewicz

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