What To Do When You Get Medical Bills You Can't Afford
In the United States, the treatment costs of a single illness, accident or pregnancy can easily reach five figures. Even with insurance, that can leave you with an eye-popping balance due. Here, straightforward strategies to handle medical bills you can't afford.
You’re young. You’re healthy. But that doesn’t mean you won’t have a medical emergency tomorrow and get stuck with some whopping bills. These bills can get overwhelming really fast and it can be tempting to just ignore them.

But let’s be clear here—you do have to pay them. According to the Federal Reserve, the credit scores of two in five Americans were negatively affected by medical bills. One in six credit reports contains a medical debt.

If you get slapped with a big hospital or doctor’s bill, make sure you follow these steps:

Make sure the charges are accurate

One reason why medical care is so expensive? The system is kind of a mess and they make a lot of billing mistakes.

Some of the most common include charges for services you didn’t receive and medications you never took. If you have an extended hospital stay, sometimes you’ll get charged a full day’s room rate even if you check out in the morning.

Don’t ignore your bills

This point bears repeating. Whatever you do, don’t ignore your bills—it’s one of the worst things you can do. If you do, your bills will get sent to collections and not only will you get annoying phone calls at all hours of the night, but your credit score will take a hard hit.

Don’t use credit cards to pay off your medical bills

If you have, what seems like never-ending medical bills, you might be tempted to pay them off in full with credit cards to get your doctor(s) off your back. But you should never use credit cards to pay off your medical bills.

As we’ve said in many of our posts before, carrying a balance on your credit card can lead to a never-ending cycle of debt due to high-interest payments. This can have a very negative effect on your credit score.

There’s more room to negotiate medical bill payments, unlike some other debts. As long as you pay something, and set up a payment plan you can get by making smaller payments for a while. Medical payments also come with low or no interest, which is definitely not true of most other debts.

Work out an interest-free payment plan

One thing I learned when I was dealing with a huge hospital bill is that interest-free payment plans exist, but “it’s often written in the fine print on the statement,” says Marcy Quattrochi, Manager of Financial Counseling at NorthShore University HealthSystem.

Depending on the hospital or doctor’s office, the amount you pay each month may be negotiable. They’ll start out with a number that may be too much for you. Don’t be afraid to talk them down.

Ask for a prompt pay discount

Some hospitals and doctor’s offices will give you a one-time discount for paying your bill in one lump sum within 30 days. “We take 10 percent off,” Mary says.

Some experts suggest asking for even more of a discount. You can get some ammunition for your argument by using the Healthcare Blue Book to see what other nearby hospitals or doctors charge for the type of care you received. If you were charged significantly more, you can argue you deserve a price reduction.

At the other end of the scale, if you can’t afford to pay anything at all…

Apply for financial assistance

You’re not a bad person if you fall into this camp. A lot of people do.

Luckily, hospitals do offer financial assistance, but each has its own procedure. At some, you have to apply for Medicaid first (you may be eligible if you are under 26 and earn less than $15,856). If you’re rejected, then you apply for help from the hospital.

Other hospitals have an easier process, but it still requires a lot of paperwork. “We have an application that you must complete along with giving us your tax returns, bank account information, and paychecks,” Mary says. “After we review that, we determine a discount.”

Here’s a list of 35 other medical assistance programs that can help you get your medical bills covered.

Apply for a loan

Getting a loan should be a last resort, because if you can’t pay it off you’ll be on the hook for the APR. That said, you’d be paying less in interest than you would if you had a balance on a credit card, which is why we’re recommending you consider this option.

If you’re at this stage, check out Credible. They have a special section for medical expenses and they’ll scour the marketplace and find you the best possible rate for your specific needs.

Deal with collection agencies

If the worst has happened, and your bills have gone to a collections agency, you need to deal with it. Luckily, internal collections agencies (those at the hospital or doctor’s office) are more willing to negotiate payment plans and hold off sending information to credit bureaus than third-party debt collectors.

Here are a few tips to help make dealing with collection agencies a little less painful:

Know what collectors can do

Believe it or not, debt collectors can’t call you an unreasonable number of times (including before 8am or 9pm).

They also can’t:

  • Call you at work if you’ve asked them not to
  • Threaten to sue you without significant reason
  • Tell you that you have committed a crime by not paying
  • Threaten to tell others about your debt (except for your Lawyer or spouse)
  • And more

Record any phone calls and get everything in writing

Talking with debt collectors can get heated quickly, but they aren’t allowed to threaten you. If they do, you have reason to sue. So make sure to record your phone calls with any debt collectors that contact you.

Once you’ve come to an agreement on what you can pay, make sure you get it in writing. Don’t make any payments until you have the physical document.

Also, keep all proof of payment—that way, if there’s ever a question about your debt you can prove that you paid what you said you would.

Offer to pay something

Obviously debt collectors want to get the full debt paid, but be firm and offer to pay what you can. It’s likely that they’ll accept it.

You should expect a counteroffer…or a couple of them. That, after all, is what debt collectors are supposed to do. If you can pay off the debt in full, this will look much better on your credit report, but chances are you can’t—which is how you got in the situation in the first place. Just offer to pay what you can.


It can be tempting to since there’s no immediate repercussion like there is when you don’t pay a cell phone bill. But like any business, hospitals and medical offices eventually turn over unpaid bills to collection agencies. And once they get involved, your credit score takes a ding and negotiation gets a whole lot harder.

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Total Articles: 48
Patty Lamberti is a freelance writer and Professional-in-Residence at Loyola University Chicago, where she teaches journalism and oversees the graduate program in digital media storytelling. If she doesn't know something about money, you can trust she'll track down the right people to find out. You can learn more about her at www.pattylamberti.com. And if you have any story ideas, or questions about money etiquette that you'd like her or an expert to answer, email her at moneymannersqs@gmail.com.

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Russell Goff says:

I was told that the minimum amount that the medical facility would accept from me was $25 a month. Is it true that if I make payments on time, any payment, the medical facility cannot sic the collection agency on me? Even if I choose to pay $10 a month?

Robert w leroux says:

I have a debt collection agency wanting me to give them my personal information they want me to tell him how much I make where I work all my bills so they can work out a payment plan my concern is that They will see I have a couple hundred dollars left over and then try and take it all what should I do and then I have two medical bills that are $1200 each Well they try and sue me or they go on my credit

Rachel Holladay says:

I have over $3,000 in medical bills, and I’m sixteen. My parents are having me pay it all out of pocket because it was my fault that I got sent, but I’m working minimum wage about fifteen hours a week on top of schooling. I can’t apply for financial aid because I’m a minor. What do I do?

john says:

you are a minor, your parents are responsible for your medical bills unless you are emancipated. they are your guardians/guarantors

Peter says:

We have an outstanding $1600 medical bill despite expensive health insurance. Haven’t paid it. They don’t agree on a $5/moonth payment. Screw them. This 3. world country needs to fix this lack of proper health care. Wish I could move to a more advanced country out of this banana republic of America.

Carlos Albert says:

I agree

May K says:

my 25 year old adult child is on my health insurance plan (because of obamacare allowed her to be on it). Question am I liable for their doctor/medical bills? I did not sign any paper work – she did at the doctors office?
So I am the subscriber – we live in California

yvonne white says:

I was a patient in a hospital in NC. I tried to drive myself so I would not have to pay the emt service to take me to the hospital. I had been sick for several months, been to the doctor, diagnosed with large hiatal hernia. The surgeon that did the tests said I would probably have to have it operated on. Not my first option, so I tried nexium, several other things, non prescribed as he would not give me anything, I guess to get sick enough so he could operate. I went to the hospital twice for dehydration, they did test on everything but the hernia, and I stressed when I went in about the vomiting and hernia. Again, no help. Went back to doctors several times, sick for months. Dr. ordered blood work, and told me I had elevated cholesterol, and gave me meds for that, and said keep taking nexium. Ok, still deathly ill, Blood pressure was elevated, had chest pain, from hernia, vomiting, disoriented, from being nauseous, not eating, dizzy. Family Dr. sent me to a cardiologist, have not been back too. I was so sick 2 weeks ago, wanted to drive myself to hospital, but stopped at the fire dept. as I was afraid to drive the 10 more minutes to the hospital. They suggested I should not drive, had high blood pressure, chest pain (hernia), disoriented from lack of sleep, vomiting. I HAD TO SIGN SO THEY COULD CHARGE ME, OR THEY WOULD NOT TAKE ME. Ok, so I did. Went the 10 minutes to the hospital, where they treated me for TIA, I live by myself, and am on disability, and have a very little retirement check from working. I told them about the hiatal hernia, bouts of high blood pressure, 2 herniated disc. Making a long painful story short, the hospital ran every CT imaginable, blood work, Mra’s, Mri’s, Ultrasounds, and God knows what else. The floor I was on was less than acceptable. Nurses were incompetent, too many incidents to mention. The er doctor, ordered all these test and told me, well, everything was negative, and the hernia is small, and would probably not consider surgery. She said, I will label this as an TIA, but I could tell she wasn’t sure. Gave me medicine for nausea, and said, by the way, you have a severely diseased Thyroid. I being alone, did not have anyone to question the things I could not think of, being so sick. I researched the Thyroid, and it had all the symptoms of a TIA, WENT TO MY Family Phys. I had written down everything, told him what medicine I needed and he said, well, that sounds right. I started taking over the counter Pro biotics, stopped all the meds the phys. had given me, as it made me throw up worse. 3 weeks later, no vomiting, blood pressure down, Hernia is almost not hurting, and I am feeling better except stressed over hospital bill, although I have Humana and it is really a good supplement. I was used, by the Doctors, the Carteret Hospital, and the personnel, for as much money as they could get. I will never go back to any hospital, I can’t afford it, and don’t know how I will pay this bill when it comes. It is sad what the Medical field has come too.
Medicare, Humana is wonderful, but being abused by Doctors, Hospitals, Dentist, etc. I am 64, and dread the rest of my life, I should have become a Dr., although I worked in Radiology in a major hospital, but I was concerned more for the patients, and doing an honest job, but then again I was not a Doctor.

Scott S says:

Let’s not get it too twisted here…. What you are paying for, mostly, is people who don’t pay….. Here’s where I get upset, because the creditor always wins…. It’s like a casino. So, myself, being insured, goes in the hospital for herniating discs in my back…. I get treated based on triage, and given one dosage of pain medication, weaker than my normal pain management regiment from my doctor. Well, that’s a $10K visit for 6 hours of mostly waiting, uncomfortably. My insurance company receives a discount, that, a person going in there without insurance won’t. This is where it gets a little off for me. The average person knows that a car dealership can work with a bank and sort of “overlook medical bills” so why pay $10K, let alone $100K (My stay for appendectomy) which even on the best payment plan, would take 30 years for most people to pay off… My Insurance company, only pays $60K, not the full $100K. So the hospital pads this by charging the huge fees, over-billing for every product and service so they can offset loss. That’s method number one.. Method number two, they learned from lenders, sell the debt to collection for pennies on the dollar, and use the full price loss for a tax-writeoff… Most credit card companies count on a percentage of their customers not paying, for tax purposes… Wash, rinse and repeat, and you have a profitable business there…. The problem now? Well, lots of people lost insurance, number one, and number two, the Affordable Healthcare Act places price fixing upon the healthcare institution for it’s goods and services, basically, the gig that’s worked so well in the past….is up. Hospitals now, contract out to separate physician groups, this is the new trick, and each portion from start to finish of your care is billed from a separate entity… This gives them the ability to staff the hospital with sub-standard doctors, nurses, etc, while increasing the flow, basically the pump and dump method, without the liability falling on you (as a hospital)…. Now you’re just a facility providing parts, the labor is where the liability is, and you’re no longer subject to that liability, and business, is finally looking good again. It’s all about how the business deals with “loss” monetarily.

Kevin H @ Growing Family Benefits says:

Your story is one we help people try to avoid. You didn’t mention whether you were getting paid while experiencing your pregnancy complications. Most women are forced to take an unpaid leave, which only compounds the problems.

Since many families plan having families in advance it makes sense to purchase short term disability to replace mom’s income, and hospital indemnity to cover her delivery. Extra benefits are paid if a child is confined to the NICU.

The benefits paid for normal childbirth might have overcome most of your debt. Extra benefits might have been paid for the time missed prior to delivery and your sick infant, giving you financial flexibility.

Jodi Von Seggern says:

Wonderful advice if you have the cash in the first place for the additional insurance. Now for the folks who don’t have enough cash to do more than exist this is just lots of friendly words. Once again, money and relief might be available, but primarily to those who need it least. I don’t take my meds because I can’t afford the co-pays on my fabulous insurance now. How does someone like me *not* become a liability to society when there’s no mechanism other than death to clear? Our family had a bankruptcy in 2011, so no relief that direction for a long time either.

U-S-A! U-S-A! Our exceptionalism in being willing to sacrifice and kill our own people in the name of profit and selfishness is nearly unparalleled!

jen says:

so true

Susan says:

This would be a great idea EXCEPT my lovely employer did not offer STD and chose to offer it AFTER I got pregnant (unplanned pregnancy) so therefore, my pregnancy was considered a PRE-EXISTING CONDITION. Great…thanks… So yeah. And add in the fact that I did NOT get paid maternity leave so I am basically up a creek without a paddle. Luckily, I do have insurance but they only covered about $40K of the nearly $47K bills that I have received. And the PP above who said hospitals contract with outside agencies, was absolutely correct! I have received NUMEROUS bills from like 20 different places. I can hardly keep them straight. And they bill for different things so guess what? It all gets paid differently through my insurance than it probably would have, had the bills come from just the hospital. Not to mention, in addition to all of the above, I was forced to go back to work after 4 weeks (since I had no leave time) and there again, you gotta pay for daycare/child care to go back to work so, more money out the window. So am I left struggling to not only pay for my medical bills, to also catch up on my REGULAR bills from while I was off work. It’s a vicious, nasty cycle! This country no longer cares about its citizens. We need free healthcare and free education for EVERYONE. I am tired of my tax dollars going to pay for people in congress who have been there 20+ years and haven’t changed a thing! I hear people say, “well, you shouldn’t have a had a kid then” or my personal favorite, “well, my mom and dad had 50 kids and did it on just my dad’s income alone.” Yeah, ok. Let me bring you back from Fantasy Land to reality for a minute and remind you that the cost of living even THIRTY years ago, was MUCH LOWER than it is now. Your dad probably found a great job and either learned on the job or had minimal to no education. Back then, that was fine. Now, it doesn’t fly. There are too few jobs and too many people in the job market. Hospitals are laying off GOOD nurses with MSN’s or BSN’s that have been on the job for years, so they can hire nurses fresh out of college for half the salary. And those same newly graduated nurses, will spend the next 30+ years paying off around $100K in student loans, while trying to make ends meet. This is the reality of the world we live in today. I will be dead before I pay off all my bills/student loans/car payment. We live to work and work to live. This is the new ‘Murica.


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