How to manage your medical expenses and save money

Medical costs
October 17, 2009 photo illustration
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

Paying for your medical expenses can be an overwhelming experience, especially when you're hit with unexpected surgeries or illnesses that require ongoing treatment.

If you don't look at your bills closely and stay on top of payments, you could be overcharged, double-billed or see your unpaid portions sent to collections, doing damage to your credit score.

Advocating for yourself in the wilds of medical billing is important and could save you significant money, debt experts say. About 60 percent of personal bankruptcy filings are due to medical bills.

TIPS FOR HANDLING YOUR MEDICAL BILLS:

• Always negotiate. "You may be able to get a portion of the bill reduced," writes Connie Prater on Creditcards.com. "A hospital bill typically includes items for surgery, anesthesiology, medications, X-rays and other expenses. Contact information for each should be included on the bill. Try talking to the service providers to see if they will reduce their fees in any way."

• Ask for discounts. You might not be given the best rate on your first bills, but you can always ask for them. "The charges on your medical bill may not be the same as the charges on your friend's, even if the two of you had the same procedure," according to WBUR's Andrew Cohen. "That's because billing rates differ depending on who's paying. One way to lower your bill is to request to pay the negotiated rate instead (the amount that private insurance companies or Medicare/Medicaid would pay for services). You can also offer to pay the entire bill in full if they give you an affordable discount."

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• Look for errors on your bills. The Huffington Post has a list of some common errors on bills to look for: "Medications, supplies, treatments or meals you didn't receive... duplicate charges for a single procedure... charges for a full day's hospitalization when you checked out early; or private room rates when you shared a suite."

• Shop around for the best prescription prices. "Prescription prices vary widely from one pharmacy to another, so be sure to shop around for drugs, too," advises WebMD. "If you can't afford your medications, talk with your doctor about programs that help patients get the drugs they need for free."

• Check to see if your employer offers a health advocate. From Bloomberg: "Employees working at sizable companies may already have access to a health advocate. Just over half of U.S. companies with more than 500 employees offer it as a benefit, according to Steven Noeldner, a senior consultant for Mercer's Total Health Management practice. Many employees don't know the benefit exists, he says, and the services generally aren't as customized as those of an independent billing advocate."

• Don't ignore your payments due. "If you're having difficulty paying a medical bill, don't simply ignore it," writes Jason Alderman. "Like any creditor, doctors and hospitals often turn unpaid bills over to collection agencies, which will wreak havoc with your credit score. Contact creditors as soon as possible, explain your situation and ask them to set up an installment payment plan or work out a reduced rate."