Health care isn’t cheap—whether you go to the doctor with a cold or spend the night in the hospital recovering from a knee surgery.
We know it’s hard enough dealing with an illness or injury, let alone figuring out how to pay for it. And even if you’ve got health insurance, you might still have to dig into your own wallet to cover the full amount.
If you feel like you’re drowning under the weight of medical costs, you’re not alone. And the good news is, there are ways to get help with medical bills. We’ll show you how to pay for health care (no matter your situation) so you can focus on living your healthiest life.
What Happens If I Don’t Pay My Medical Bills?
Here’s how it goes: You’re up on the ladder hanging Christmas lights—and the next thing you know, you’re on the ground with a broken arm. Ouch! Someone drives you to the ER, and hours later, you walk out with a cast . . . and a bill.
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On that bill, you’ll probably see a due date. If you don’t pay in full by that date, you’ll get stuck with late fees and added interest. And if you continue to fall behind, that medical bill will become medical debt. Then, the debt collector will start calling.
That debt collector could be the hospital’s internal collections department. Or it could be an outside collections agency the hospital sold your medical debt to. (Hospitals will sell your debt if it’s been a while and they don’t think they’ll get any money from you—typically after three months.)
And listen, debt collectors can get vicious—they’ll even stoop to harassing and lying to get you to pay up. But don’t let collectors bully you. You have rights! Know that you can’t go to jail for unpaid medical bills. But you can be taken to court or have money taken from your paycheck.
Yeah, all that sounds scary. But there are usually ways to settle any medical debt before things get too out of hand.
What to Do If You Can’t Pay Your Medical Bills
The best way to pay for your medical bills is, of course, with health insurance. Either you or your health care provider will file a claim, and insurance will pay all or some of the cost. But there are still times where you’re the one who has to foot the bill.
Maybe you went to an out-of-network specialist, you had a procedure that isn’t covered by your insurance, or you haven’t reached your deductible yet. Or maybe you don’t have health insurance at all (which, by the way, everyone needs).
Whatever the case, you’re expected to pay up. Problem is, you don’t have the money.
First, take a deep breath. We know how it feels to get that pit in your stomach when you see a bill and have no clue how you’re going to pay. But there are things you can do to get rid of your medical bills. It’s just a matter of taking things one step at a time.
1. Ask for an itemized bill.
Unless you’re a doctor or nurse, it can be hard to keep tabs on all the different procedures you go through in a hospital. And sometimes you get charged for minor things you didn’t expect—like an over-the-counter pain reliever or having your temperature taken. (Yeah, it can get ridiculous.)
Go ahead and ask for an itemized bill, as well as an explanation of benefits (a breakdown of what insurance paid and what you owe out of pocket). That way, you can see exactly what procedures were performed, how much each cost, and what is (and isn’t) covered by your insurance.
If any of it sounds fishy to you, follow up with your health care provider. Don’t assume everything you’re charged for is 100% accurate. Sometimes lab work or other procedures are accidently added to your bill, even if you didn’t get them. Hey, mistakes happen—you just shouldn’t have to pay for them.
2. Research assistance programs.
Depending on your state, income, disability, and other factors, there are federal programs that will pay for all or some of your medical bills. But keep in mind, you usually have to be living pretty close to the poverty line or be permanently disabled in order to qualify.
There are also a ton of nonprofit organizations (like the HealthWell Foundation) that provide financial assistance for people diagnosed with a chronic condition, like cancer or diabetes. A quick Google search should give you plenty of options to explore for your specific situation.
3. Negotiate your bill.
Maybe you had a newborn in the NICU or you were taken to the hospital by ambulance after having a heart attack. Before you could even process what was happening, you’d already racked up a huge medical bill.
This could be because you don’t have insurance or because you haven’t hit your out-of-pocket maximum (the amount you have to pay before insurance fully covers your bill). Either way, know this: Medical emergencies are not your fault! But if you know you don’t have the money to pay, negotiating your bill can help relieve some of the financial burden.
Set up a meeting with the hospital administrator or billing department. Explain your situation, how grateful you are for the treatment you received, and why you’re not able to cover the bill. Ask if you can settle for a lower amount or get on a payment plan.
Here’s the deal: The worst they can say is no. But you might be surprised what can happen when you’re honest and humble. Most of the time, they’d rather get some money from you than nothing at all. Yeah, the whole thing is probably going to be uncomfortable. But you’re in a desperate situation. Whatever you do, just don’t start pointing fingers—that won’t get you anywhere.
4. Work out a payment plan.
Even if you aren’t able to settle your medical bill for a lower amount, your best bet is to get on a medical payment plan. Rather than having to pay your bill in one lump sum, this allows you to break it down into more manageable, bite-sized chunks.
Your payment plan will depend on the health care provider and the type of treatment you received. But there’s usually either no interest or lower interest if you received acute care (emergency care where you’re treated first and billed after, like having your appendix removed).
Just remember—like any payment plan, you want to pay it off as soon as possible. And the best way to do that is by working the debt snowball method. By ordering your medical bills smallest to largest and throwing any extra money you can find at the smallest one, you’ll make progress faster and gain more motivation to keep going.
So, even if you’ve got a set monthly payment, aim to pay more so you can get that medical bill out of your life. And off your chest!
5. Get on a budget.
Whether you’re trying to pay down a medical bill or save up for health expenses, a budget is your best tool. It helps you take something that feels way out of your control (like medical bills) and turn it into a plan that you can control—no matter your income.
First, list out how much money you make each month (salaries, side hustles, etc.). Next, list your common monthly expenses, starting with your Four Walls: food, utilities, shelter and transportation. Then, subtract your expenses from your income so that it equals zero. That doesn’t mean you spend all your money. It means every single dollar in your budget has a job—spending, giving, saving or paying your medical bills.
If you haven’t already, find ways to cut any nonessential spending or save in other areas. This will help you throw more money at your medical bills (and any other debt you have). Yeah, it’s probably going to be a little tight for a while. But the sooner the bill is paid, the sooner you can stop stressing about it.
Listen, it may sound simple, but a budget really is a lifesaver. It’s the best way to know you’ve got your basics covered and help you still make progress on your medical bills. Plus, the process is even easier when you budget with EveryDollar.
6. Talk to a financial coach.
Okay, so we’ve given you a lot of options here. But we know there can be a lot of shame around medical debt. And dealing with medical bills is mentally and emotionally draining—on top of trying to heal physically.
Sometimes what you need most is just someone to explain your options, guide you through the process, and let you know you’re not alone.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by medical bills, a financial coach can help. This is someone who will actually listen to you and help you navigate your specific situation. Plus, you’ll get practical next steps to help you make financial progress.
Go ahead and set up your free coaching consultation today. Or get a full one-on-one coaching session when you become a Ramsey+ member!
Whatever you do, know this: You are not defined by your ability to pay your medical bills. But you deserve to live your life without having to worry about how to pay for life’s ups and downs. And if you start taking some of these small steps today, you can be more confident and prepared for the future.