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How to negotiate your health bills

Roughly two-thirds of Americans are either “very worried” (35%) or “somewhat worried” (30%) about affording unexpected health bills, according to a poll from Kaiser Family Foundation. 

Efforts are underway to help people learn more about health care pricing and hopefully reduce the number of surprise bills. But if you do find a steep bill in your mailbox, there may be ways to lower the total. 

Here are steps you can take to negotiate your health bills.

Get an itemized bill

Do you know what you’re being charged for? Call your provider’s billing department to ask for an itemized bill that includes dollar amounts for specific products and services. 

Dispute errors

Once you get a breakdown of all the products and services you’re being charged for, check for errors. Examples include charges for medications you never received, a test your doctor never ordered and duplicate charges.

If you find errors, contact your provider’s billing department immediately.

Compare rates

Beyond errors, you may be able to lower your health bill if you find you were charged a higher rate than average. Online tools like Healthcare Bluebook and Fair Health Consumer let you compare rates so you can determine if your bill is unfair. You can use this information to negotiate for a lower rate, but keep in mind that your provider still may not budge. 

Ask for a discount for paying the balance upfront

If you can pay your health bill in full, it couldn’t hurt to ask your provider for a discount. Merely asking for a discount for paying the whole balance upfront helped medical billing expert Christine Kraft slash $500 from a $5,000 medical bill, according to CBS MoneyWatch.

Call your provider’s billing department to determine if they will offer you a discount for paying the balance in full.

Ask to lower the bill

If you can’t afford your medical bill, find out if there’s anything the billing department can do to help. Kindly let them know you can’t afford the bill and ask if they’re willing to provide a discount. 

If you’re uninsured, ask if you can pay the Medicare rate, Jenifer Bosco, staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, told CNBC.

It may not work, but it’s always worth the ask.

Check for protection laws

According to a study from the Kaiser Family Foundation, roughly 1 in 6 hospital visits results in a “surprise” medical bill.

“Surprise” medical bills often occur when you’re charged for “out-of-network” care or services. For example, suppose you have a medical emergency. In that case, you may get stuck with an ambulance provider that’s out of your network. You may also visit an in-network hospital but inadvertently receive treatment from an out-of-network doctor or specialist. In either case, the result is the same: a steep medical bill.

If you find yourself in this situation, you may be able to cut down your bill dramatically.  

Some states have “balance-billing” protection laws. Under the most comprehensive laws, insured patients treated by out-of-network providers are only responsible for in-network co-pay or co-insurance costs. The provider can’t charge you the balance of the bill. 

However, protections vary by state, and some states provide no protection. The Commonwealth Fund offers a state-by-state breakdown of protection laws. Check your state to find out if you have any recourse for surprise bills. 

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