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Medical Debt Is Not Ordinary Debt

Updated: Nov 23, 2021

Medical Debt Is Different, So Avoid This Common Savings Strategy

This article originally ran in Yahoo Finance. Written by Noel Fletcher on Sun, October 3, 2021, 9:00 AM

Medical debt is different. for financial sake…don’t treat as ordinary debt: If health care bills are piling up and your finances are tightly stretched, you’ll want to explore every avenue you have to regain control over your budget..

Refinancing and consolidation are popular remedies for other kinds of debt, like the high-interest debt on credit cards. You just take out a new loan with better terms and use it to pay off your old balances.

But these common solutions may do more harm than good when it comes to health care bills. Medical debt is special — and the good news is that it gives you a lot more options.

Before you act, know that medical debt is different: Since hospital bills are often unexpected and severe, medical debt is very common. Nearly one in five Americans are being chased by debt collectors over unpaid medical bills, with a combined tally of $140 billion.

That sounds bad — and it is — but medical debt differs from other types in three important ways.

  1. It is typically interest free or has a very low interest rate.

  2. Stop paying and your debt goes to collections — often about three months past due — it won’t ruin your credit right away. The major credit-reporting bureaus provide a 180-day grace period before listing the delinquent debt on your credit reports, giving you more time to pay it off.

  3. Finally, some credit scoring models treat medical debt less harshly than other kinds, so it might not do as much damage. And if you can convince your insurance provider to pay off the collection agency, the credit bureaus may remove the black mark from your credit reports early.

Refinancing Medical Debt: So, here's the problem with refinancing. On the surface, consolidating medical debt works the same as consolidating credit card debt: You replace all of your troublesome balances with a new loan that works better for you.

That will leave you with just a single payment to manage. You won’t need to keep track of numerous bills with varying amounts and due dates. This sounds pretty convenient — but unless you’re already paying interest on your medical bills, you’ll be adding costs by switching to a personal loan, line of credit or credit card.

Even if your credit score is in good shape and you can snag a zero-interest promotion on a credit card, you’ll only have a short time before the problem gets worse. Not only that, but you will also lose all of the special protections attached to medical debt once you turn it into conventional debt.

Another potential reason to refinance would be to stretch out your debt over a longer span of time. This could reduce your monthly payments and help you avoid defaulting. But you might be able to achieve the same result if you just ask your creditor for help.

Alternatives ways to handle your medical debt: Instead of replacing your debt, see whether you can reduce your burden with one of the following options:

  • Talk to your providers about financial assistance

  • Try to negotiate a payment plan with your creditor, whether that’s a hospital, physician, laboratory, or some combination. Ask whether you can split the bill into more manageable payments over a longer period of time.

  • The Affordable Care Act (ACA) actually requires certain nonprofit hospitals to provide financial assistance to low-income patients.

  • Although the ACA doesn’t specify the exact terms of that assistance, the nonprofit Patient Advocate Foundation says discounts range from 10% to a 100% write-off. Don’t assume that income or assets (such as home ownership) exclude you from qualifying for financial assistance,” it adds in a report. “Someone who earns $100,000 annually but has $25,000 in medical costs could qualify for assistance even if it doesn’t initially look like they would be eligible.”

  • You can also find out whether your state has its own medical debtor protection laws. About half of states spell out eligibility based on income and specify what type of assistance a hospital must offer, according to the National Consumer Law Center.

Correct Billing and Coding Mistakes on Medical Bills: Look carefully at your medical bills. Just like credit reports often contain errors that damage your credit score, billing errors could be making your debt worse than it needs to be. For example, you may have been charged higher rates than your insurance provider allowed or billed for disallowed charges under your coverage.

If you find any errors or unauthorized charges, contact your health care provider and insurance company for resolution.

Call in some support

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, enrolling in a debt management program may be a better way to consolidate your bills.

To do so, enlist a reputable credit counselor to help you manage your bills and create a payment agreement between you and your creditors. Two nonprofit companies that provide this service are American Consumer Credit Counseling and the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, though not all of their services are free.

Hire a medical billing advocate. Some people do this if they are trying to manage a chronic medical situation or if they are having trouble getting their insurance company to pay for treatment. These professionals promise to negotiate for you, help lower the charges on your bills and ensure you aren’t paying more than you should be. Some charge by the hour or take a percentage of the money you saved from their assistance. Since this type of career is relatively new, you should look carefully to ensure you are hiring a reputable advocate. Two places you can go to find more are the Alliance of Professional Health Advocates and the National Association of Healthcare Advocacy.

Finding Cash Flow To Service Medical Debt

Once your medical debt is in the most manageable shape possible, you’ll may need to find cash in your budget to make your monthly payments. Consider the follow strategies that may free cash flow to service medical debt:

  1. Refinancing your mortgage: Keep in mind that the best interest rates go to borrowers with the highest credit scores. If your bills have been dragging your score down, use a free credit monitoring service such as Identity Guard, LifeLock, MyFICO and to assess the damage and get advice on the fastest way to improve it.

  2. Insurance policies: Studies show you could be overpaying by thousands per year. Start by using a quote-comparison website to check for a better rate on your homeowners insurance, then use the same strategy to save on your car insurance. These sites are not hard to find. Just enter ‘Quote Comparison Websites” in a search engine such as Bing, Google, or Yahoo.

  3. Avoid financial destructive medical bills in the future: try not to go without health insurance for any period of time. Shop around to determine whether you have the best health insurance you can afford. Please keep in mind that Employer group health insurance is almost always the way to go. However,…many of us may be unemployed so start by using a quote-comparison website to check for a better rate on your health insurance. Same as you did for your home and auto insurance.

Please do your research or have someone do it for you. As you have seen, medical debt is different. The good news is that with a little planning you can use this difference to your advantage..

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