You had an emergency appendectomy. You're recuperating from a terrible case of the flu. Your child was stung by a bee causing a severe allergic reaction. Your spouse was hit by a car while cycling.
There are many reasons why you or a family member head to the emergency room or spend time in a hospital – even if you're otherwise healthy people.
Whether you have health insurance or if you were uninsured when the illness or injury happened, you may be facing thousands of dollars of hospital bills.
If you had surgery, required extensive medical tests, or spent an extended period in the hospital, your medical bills could be in the tens of thousands of dollars. Or more – maybe a lot more.
It's not unheard of for people to receive six-figure medical bills as they're home recovering from serious illnesses or injuries.
What Happens if You Can't Pay Your Hospital Bills?
It depends. What you should know is, you're not alone in your struggle to pay big medical bills!
People worry so much about not being able to pay for healthcare that some just suffer in silence.
A Bankrate survey found 25% of Americans say “they or someone in their family has skipped necessary medical care because of the cost.” And double that number are worried about being able to afford health insurance.
But skipping emergency or needed medical treatment isn't the answer. And it can be downright dangerous.
So what can you do if you end up at the hospital and get a big medical bill?
First of all, don't panic – and unless you know you can pay the monthly payments, don't pull out your credit cards or tap into a home equity loan to pay your hospital bills either.
If you have an emergency fund saved to help with unexpected expenses, you can put some or all of it toward your hospital bills.
But that still might not be enough depending on what happens to you.
If you were living paycheck to paycheck before the illness or injury, you might have little or no money to make payments.
When You Have Medical Bills You Can't Afford
1. Know it's a process
It is important to understand this could be a long and difficult process, depending on how complicated your bills are and what financial situation you are in.
Don't let that stop you from taking action. Your biggest mistake is ignoring the bills.
You can take a few weeks to gather information and consider your options but address your medical bills quickly.
If you choose not to pay the bills or refuse to work with the hospital on a payment plan, the bills will likely be sent to debt collection.
After a period of time, the collection agency can report the debt to credit bureaus.
If you struggle with organization or don't understand the bills and what you are being asked to pay, don't be afraid to ask for help from a family member or friend.
If money was a problem before the bills from the hospital visit began arriving, it will likely cause you even more stress when you see what the charges are.
You want to make sure you have every bill – including those from any out-of-network providers who cared for you. And don't forget ambulance services if you had an emergency medical event.
If you know you are missing a charge, call and ask about it. Don't just hope it won't show up. It will – maybe months later.
Get a complete picture of all of your expenses so you can deal with them at one time, rather than as each invoice comes in.
Look at every arriving bill thoroughly. Call and ask for itemized statements if you aren't sure what the charges on the bills represent.
If a family member was with you at the hospital, ask them to review the bills to see if they agree with the charges.
When you disagree with any charges after thoroughly reviewing the bills, you may have to challenge hospital charges or dispute insurance company denials.
Hospital billing departments have been known to make mistakes. And insurance companies have an appeal process you can follow if you disagree with how you've been treated.
Remember to take good notes and don't be afraid to ask questions.
If you know you can't pay the total hospital bill, you can try to call the billing department and ask for a face-to-face meeting to discuss the charges and possible payment plans.
You may also be able to negotiate the bills. If you can make a substantial payment, in the beginning, you may be able to reduce your overall debt too.
It takes extra time and energy on your part, but it could mean significant savings in the end and a payment amount you can keep up with each month.
If you have such a massive bill, you can't even begin to figure out how you'll pay, or if you can't make even a small payment each month, ask if the hospital has a patient advocate or social worker who can meet with you.
You are not the first person who has struggled to pay a bill, and you won't be the last.
The hospital may have funding sources to help people with significant financial challenges.
5. Seek professional help
If the hospital isn't willing to negotiate or help provide you with a payment plan fitting your budget – or if you continue to have billing issues, you may need to hire a professional medical billing advocate or claims assistance specialist.
It may seem crazy to think you'd spend even more money to address your hospital bills. But helping you with your medical bills is their job, and they may be able to reduce your obligation significantly.
Consider doing what you can on your own first, and if you're not happy or still see no way to pay your bills, you can check into this option.
6. Turn to friends/family/others
You can talk to family and friends about your hospital bills and see if they have suggestions.
Depending on what you owe, you may have relatives willing to loan you money.
In the case of accidents or serious illnesses, crowdsourcing like GoFundMe has helped people pay hospital bills too.
Some communities also have grants and donated funds to help pay medical bills for those struggling financially.
Negotiate bills and payment plans before asking and using money from relatives, friends, or your community. That way, they're helping you pay the lowest amount possible.
Following the advice here should help you start addressing your health care bills.
Pay what you can, negotiate, and ask for help if you need it.
Just don't ignore it. Be proactive to minimize the long-term impact of your hospital visit or stay.
Vicki and Amy are authors of Estate Planning 101 – a Crash Course in Planning for the Unexpected -coming soon from Adams Media.