If the mail carrier has ever slipped a medical bill in your mailbox, then you’re familiar with this series of events: Open the envelope. Scan the document for the total. Cue the shock.
You probably think, “I have to pay how much for that trip to the ER?” Finally, confusion sets in as you glance over the individual charges. It’s like trying to read a foreign language. None of it makes sense, but you’re not alone. Millions of Americans experience this shock and confusion every year, and many of them struggle to pay the excessive — and sometimes arbitrary — charges they’ve been assigned. That can change.
Why Transparency Matters
As healthcare costs and debt continue to climb, a growing number of financial experts are advocating for more transparency in the healthcare billing process. They believe that by improving the system and educating patients on how to assess their medical bills, patients can be saved from crippling healthcare-related debt.
Steven Brill wrote an article for Time magazine called “A Bitter Pill,” which revealed staggering inconsistencies in medical charges and the complex billing system.
Brill unearthed a number of problems with real-life patient bills — from procedures and supplies being drastically marked up in price to patients being charged for services they never even received. These errors could easily be missed due to the cryptic coding system the healthcare industry uses for billing, which makes it difficult or impossible for patients to decipher charges.
As a result, more and more people are facing high medical bills, some of which are forcing them into extreme debt and even bankruptcy. According to a study by the Federal Reserve, medical bills account for more than half of all debts in collection. And it isn’t just those without health insurance feeling the pinch; NerdWallet estimates that nearly 10 million adults with year-round coverage will still accumulate medical bills that they can’t pay off this year.
Brill and other industry experts are calling for increased transparency in the healthcare billing system. They’d like hospitals to make it known how much they’re charging for all services, products, and procedures so patients can make an educated decision on where they seek care. If patients have the information and are able to make a choice between providers, hospitals will be forced to offer more competitive prices for their services to keep patients coming in.
They’d also like to see healthcare providers abandon the archaic coding system and generate bills in a way the average person can understand to make it easier for patients to review their charges and catch mistakes.
How to Save Money on Medical Bills
Until these changes are adopted, here are some ways to save money on medical bills and avoid costly mistakes:
1. Make Sure You Get The Bill
Any time you receive healthcare, you should receive a bill for the services. If you don’t receive a bill, it could indicate a problem with the personal or insurance information that was provided. Your charges will remain unpaid, go into collection, and hurt your credit, all without you even knowing. Call to check on your account if you don’t receive a bill in a timely manner.
2. Ask for Detailed Bills
Always request detailed bills for any medical services you receive. Itemized bills can help you spot errors, such as duplicate charges, so you only pay for the services you received. Look everything over carefully, and ask about anything you believe is incorrect.
3. Compare Prices on Your Bill
If you think you’ve been overcharged, compare the prices on your bill against the Medicare rates for the same services, which can be found on the Medicare/Medicaid website. You should anticipate a variance in charges, but make sure you challenge any large discrepancies.
4. Contact Patient Advocacy Company
Patient advocacy companies can help with complex or severely problematic medical bills, but they’re also a good choice for those who are very ill and don’t have the time or energy to argue over charges themselves. If you’re insured through your employer, ask your company to invest in a service like Health Advocate. If you’re insured as an individual or with your family independently, companies like Compass Professional Health Services can help by comparing costs of medical procedures, finding the best physician in an area at the best price point, and working with insurance carriers to resolve erroneous bills or claims.
Increased transparency is a vital step the healthcare industry needs to take. It will not only give consumers a clearer picture of the costs associated with their care, but it will also allow for more competitive pricing and a more effective billing system. Until then, consumers must protect themselves by regularly checking the accuracy of their medical bills and not being afraid to dispute incorrect charges.