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Medical debts: What you owe may not be what you owe

Most debt is created by consumers buying goods and services up front. One swipe of a credit card is all it takes to make a purchase.

Medical costs are the exception to that rule. Care and treatment occur before a bill is paid, let alone sent to the patient. In addition, consumers lack knowledge of the costs prior to, during and following treatment from a doctor.

Medical debt also has a unique dynamic that combines the need for urgent treatment and providers not collecting money before attending to a patient’s immediate health issues. Medical facilities send bills afterwards to insurance companies. They too are unaware of the amount covered versus the amount that is the patient’s responsibility.

When medical bills arrive to patients, sticker shock is all too common when they are confronted with the balance that they owe. Few are prepared for the amounts they see.

Medical bills are also unique in that a dollar amount on a statement may not end up being the actual amount owed. That seemingly overwhelming debt could be thought of as an opening bid, if not an opportunity to negotiate cost reductions with their healthcare provider.

Should talks fail to significantly reduce the debt, trade associations exist to help people negotiate down their medical bills. Many of these companies can reduce medical debts by one-third to one-half of the amount owed. Yet, far too few consumers are aware of their existence.

Various options exist to reorganize out-of-control medical debts. Yet, negotiations may not always be effective. For many, the best option is a bankruptcy filing with the help of an attorney.

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