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New Study Shows Number of Americans with Past-Due Medical Debt Down 6%

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Fewer Americans are struggling to pay back medical debt.

The rate of American adults aged 18 to 64 with past-due medical debt dropped from 29.6% to 23.8% between 2012 and 2015, according to new study released by researchers at the Urban Institute.

Not surprisingly, people who did not have insurance were more likely to say that they currently had unpaid bills from a health care or medical service provider (a rate of 30.5%). But with the rise of high-deductible health plans, even people who have insurance find themselves in medical debt — 22.8% of insured consumers had past-due medical debt, according to the study.

When researchers looked at past-due debt by region, the differences were particularly staggering. There was “enormous variation across states,” according to Senior Research Associates Kyle Caswell and Michael Karpman, who authored the study.

Eight of the 10 states with the highest rates of past-due medical debt were in the South, including Mississippi, Arkansas, West Virginia, South Carolina, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Georgia. The other two were midwestern states Indiana and Missouri.

The researchers could not point to a solid conclusion as to why Southerners were harder hit by medical expenses.

“Of course we would like to understand better why, but it does give us a starting point for asking questions as to why the population differs from state to state,” said Caswell.

Why are rates of past-due medical debt dropping? It would be easy to conclude that the drop is due to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. People today are simply more likely to have insurance, as the rate of uninsured Americans has fallen from 16.6% to 10.5% since the implementation of ACA in 2013, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

But Caswell and Karpman said it would be a stretch to give all the credit to the expansion of health care under the Affordable Care Act. The steady drop in unemployment and a general improvement of the U.S. economy over the last few years could also play a role, making it more likely that people can afford to cover out-of-pocket medical expenses.

As the Urban Institute’s report found, simply carrying health insurance isn’t enough to protect consumers against unexpected medical bills. Their findings are bolstered by a recent report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which found 70% of people with medical debt also have insurance, mostly through employer-provided plans.

How to Tackle Unpaid Medical Debt

In just moments, an unexpected medical emergency can put the average American family in thousands of dollars of medical debt. That can pose a burden, considering about of 47% Americans would struggle to scrape together $400 in case of an emergency according to the Federal Reserve’s 2016 Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households.

Families with medical debt say the debt undercut their ability to save and afford basic household needs, the Urban Institute’s study found. To cope, families may rely more on credit cards and other forms of debt to make ends meet.

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, outstanding medical debt makes up more than half of all collection notices on credit reports. Past-due medical debt can seriously harm your credit score. If bills go unpaid for long enough, consumers may wind up facing a lawsuit or even bankruptcy.

To help avoid these types of consequences, follow these tips to tackle medical debt you can’t afford to pay:

Ask for a detailed billing statement and check for errors

You may receive a billing statement from your insurer or medical provider, but it may not give the full picture of services you received. Request a detailed, line item statement and review it carefully for any errors. It’s possible you could have received treatment from an out-of-network doctor without your knowledge. Or, there may be duplicate charges or charges for care you didn’t receive. If you find errors, contact the provider directly and have them corrected and a new statement sent.

Negotiate with your medical provider directly

You might be able to negotiate down your medical debt or arrange a payment plan with the medical provider, whether it’s your doctor’s office, a hospital, or your insurer. Along the way, keep careful records of who you talk to and what was said. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to negotiate a medical bill with a health insurance company.

Try a 0% APR credit card

If your bill isn’t overwhelmingly large, you could try paying the debt off with a credit card with an introductory 0% interest period. Since you won’t be charged interest, you’ll pay less over the period. Before you apply, make sure you’ll be able pay off the balance before the 0% interest introductory period expires.

Pay off medical debt with a personal loan

If you’ve been unable to negotiate or you are struggling to find a 0% APR credit card deal, a personal loan may be another option. Depending on your credit history, rates on personal loans range from 4.7% to 36%. We’ve pulled together a list of six great personal loan options here.

Negotiate a settlement with a collection agency

Past-due medical debt eventually gets charged off and sold to a collection agency. But that doesn’t mean your window to negotiate has totally closed. If you have access to enough cash, ask if you can settle the debt for a lesser amount and forgive the remaining balance. Just be aware that forgiven debts can be treated as taxable income in some cases.

Seek help from a medical billing advocate

If you’ve been unsuccessful in trying to negotiate down your medical debt, the debt has significantly damaged your credit, or you are on the brink of filing bankruptcy, consider reaching out to a medical billing advocate. Don’t confuse these advocates with debt settlement or repair firms, which should be treated with caution.

You can find a medical billing advocate through the National Association of Healthcare Advocacy Consultants or the Alliance of Claims Assistance Professionals. These services aren’t free, and whether or not it makes financial sense to hire a pro depends on how much money you stand to save by lowering your debts. Advocates typically charge about $80 to $150 annually, a flat fee or a percentage of your savings says Denise Sikora, Secretary of ACAP.

Look for a charitable foundation that can help

You may want to consider reaching out to a nonprofit for assistance. If you were diagnosed with a particular condition, look toward organizations such as the Lupus Foundation of America for individuals with lupus or the American Kidney Fund for those with kidney disease. You can also apply for grants from nonprofits that provide more general assistance such as the Patient Access Network and the HealthWell Foundation, which may be able to grant funds toward medication assistance or other medical costs. With these foundations, limits for assistance may depend on your diagnosis and other factors.

Consider bankruptcy as a last resort

If the debt is more than 50 percent of your annual income, bankruptcy might be a viable move to make. Let the hospital know you’re considering bankruptcy first, as they may then be open to negotiation. Be aware the filing bankruptcy can adversely impact your credit for years after the fact.

Brittney Laryea
Brittney Laryea |

Brittney Laryea is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Brittney at brittney@magnifymoney.com

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