Your average American faces a lot of financial stress. Low wages that don't keep up with inflation and the cost of living, large mortgages or steep rents, student loan debt, and high-interest credit cards are just some of the factors to blame. As of November 2019, U.S. households held a record $14 trillion in debt, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Financial stress can also come from medical bills. According to the Journal of General Internal Medicine, 137 million Americans are in some sort of medical debt, and it's the top reason that Americans contemplate cashing in a 401(k) and other retirement funds, a study from TD Ameritrade found. Additionally, Debt.org reports that the average American spends more than $10,000 a year on healthcare.
Financial stress is always tough, but when you're sick and facing a mounting pile of expensive medical bills, things can get even tougher.
"An unexpected medical bill can send your finances into a tailspin," says Michael Bonebright, a consumer analyst for DealNews.com. "Worse, as debts pile up, the stress takes a toll on your mental and physical wellbeing, raising your blood pressure and increasing your susceptibility to anxiety and depression."
If you want to learn techniques for coping with financial stress while paying off your medical bills at the same time, here are five steps you can take right away.
1. See if You Qualify for Medicare or Medicaid
You may not think you'll qualify for a government assistance program like Medicare or Medicaid, but looking into these programs should be one of your first steps if you want to reduce your medical bills. Bonebright suggests going to Benefits.gov and applying because, even if you don't qualify, your children could. "It's worth your time to investigate all the available avenues for assistance," he says.
2. Look Into Your Health Insurance Plan
It's important to be educated on your health insurance plan and what it does and does not cover. Doris Zito, an insurance advocate for Healthlink Advocates Inc., suggests downloading and reviewing your Summary of Benefits and Coverage or asking for a copy from an HR representative at your employer. Open your online health insurance portal and become familiar with things like claims processing, in-network providers, your deductible, and how much of a medical bill is your responsibility.
"You can either spend precious time on hold with every call you make to customer service to ask a question or use the portal to gather important information," she says.
3. Find Low-Cost Healthcare
It will be easier to pay your medical bills if they aren't so high in the first place. Gail Trauco, RN, BSN-OCN, founder of Medical Bill 911, recommends going to low-cost or free healthcare centers for the care you need. "Federally funded health centers provide care for underserved populations on a sliding fee scale," she says.
4. Advocate for Yourself
When you're navigating financial stress, you may not think of one of the simplest solutions: negotiation. Ronit Levy, PsyD, director of Bucks County Anxiety Center, says you should call hospitals, collection agencies and doctors' offices to see if you can arrange a payment plan or discount. Some hospitals will reduce your bill by 20% to 50% if you pay up front. Additionally, she recommends asking for financial aid.
5. Hire a Patient Advocate
If the financial stress is too overwhelming for you to handle negotiating, you can hire a patient advocate to help. Bonebright notes that the service is not free. However, he adds: "Hiring a case manager whose sole job is to navigate medical bureaucracy on your behalf can ultimately save you a lot of money. You can learn more about the ins and outs of the process from the Patient Advocate Foundation, but note that they typically only work with chronic disease patients."
Financial stress can take a big toll on your health. During this time, it's important to know that solutions are available for pricey medical bills. All it takes is patience and a little bit of research.
"Working harder to pay off medical debt faster will probably make your health condition worse," Levy says. "This will only result in more bills. Take a long-term view on this. Think of it the way you do a car payment or a mortgage. It's going to take time to pay it off, and that's OK. Investing in your health is the most important investment you can make."