How to pay medical bills: 6 options when you need assistance

When you or a loved one is sick, the last thing you want to worry about is money. But unfortunately, illness and expense often go hand in hand. In fact, a 2022 report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) showed that around 20% of American households reported some form of medical debt.

Medical bills can hit especially hard, especially if you don’t have health insurance. And because an accident or illness often happens quickly and unexpectedly, it can leave little time to prepare. Thankfully, there may be resources available to help.

Key takeaways

  • It can help to review the accuracy of medical bills to ensure that your information is correct and that you don’t have inaccurate charges or claims.
  • Some people may qualify for medical bill forgiveness or be able to negotiate payment plans.
  • There are several different types of organizations that can help those in need of financial assistance with their medical bills, particularly those who are under- or uninsured.

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1. Review the accuracy of your medical bills

A good first step to receiving help with your medical payments is to take a close look at what your bill says you owe.

Check for errors

To check for mistakes, go through your bill line by line and look for any duplicate charges or other charges that do not appear to be correct. You can also compare your medical bill against your insurer’s explanation of benefits statement and the record of your treatment to make sure it all matches up. Call your insurance company if you need anything explained or if you want to question any charges. 

Watch for surprise medical billing

In an emergency, you could unwittingly end up in a hospital or with a doctor outside your insurance network. If that’s the case, your insurance may not cover the costs and fees you might normally expect it to. And you could be billed for the difference. This is often called surprise medical billing.

Thankfully, there are some protections from this kind of billing thanks to the No Surprises Act. If you have questions about the law, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has more information.

2. Work with the hospital or health care provider to get medical bills reduced

There are a number of ways you might be able to work with hospitals or health care providers to reduce your bill. Here are three to consider: 

  • Negotiate. Educate yourself about how much other local providers charge for the same service by calling around, asking your insurer or comparing prices online. If you’re being charged more, you can try requesting a price reduction. If you’re uninsured, you could try inquiring what the fee would be if you were an insured patient—and then asking to pay that amount. 
  • Ask for a discount. Some providers might also be willing to give you a discount if you’re able to pay a medical bill in full. Offering to pay the full amount within a set time frame, such as 30 or 60 days, could increase the likelihood of securing a discount.
  • Request medical bill forgiveness or assistance. If you’re uninsured or experiencing hardship, ask whether your hospital has an assistance or “charity care” program that can cover or reduce your medical bills. Keep in mind, you might need to show tax returns and other documentation to prove your hardship.

3. Request a medical bill payment plan

Some medical providers offer payment plans, breaking a large medical bill into smaller payments over time. And those who may have a limited income could qualify for an interest-free plan tailored to their specific financial needs. 

Just make sure you ask whether there are any additional charges associated with the plan and request a written confirmation of the terms your provider agrees to.

4. Get help from other organizations

If you’re having trouble paying medical bills, there are public programs, private foundations and other organizations that may be able to help. These groups might provide information or financial assistance with your medical bills or prescriptions. 

The following are just a few organizations you can start with. But check online and with your health care provider to see whether there are other charities or nonprofits, either national or local, that could help you too.

Federal and state resources

  • can connect you with government benefits you might be entitled to, including Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Medicare.
  • The State Health Insurance Assistance Program site may be able to help you find assistance available in your area.

Private organizations for underinsured or uninsured patients

Disease-specific organizations

5. Apply for medicaid to help with future medical bills

Medicaid is a program that helps low-income individuals finance their medical treatment. This coverage is funded by federal and state governments. 

For qualifying individuals, Medicaid can be used directly at a participating health care provider’s office or through a managed care plan. Typically, participants pay just a small co-payment—but this fee can be waived for those in need.

While you won’t be able to apply these benefits to your existing medical bills, it can be helpful for reducing any future medical costs.

6. Contact a professional

According to the Department of Health & Human Services, many states and hospitals have patient advocates. These people or offices may be able to help if you have problems. 

Private medical billing advocates might also be an option. These medical billing specialists negotiate with medical providers on behalf of patients. But they usually charge for their services.

Frequently asked questions about medical bills

Once you know the final amount of your medical bill—and where to look for additional help—you might still have questions about when and how to pay. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about paying medical bills:

How long do I have to pay a medical bill?

Situations vary. If the due date isn’t clear from the bill, call your insurer or health provider and ask. 

If you don’t pay your bill or arrange a payment plan in time, you run the risk of having your bill turned over to a collection agency.

What is the minimum monthly payment on medical bills?

There is no standard minimum monthly payment on a medical bill. But you may be able to arrange a payment plan in which you and your provider agree on a schedule for payments. 

What happens if you don’t pay your medical bills?

If you don’t pay your medical bill on time, your provider’s medical billing department might turn your debt over to a collection agency. But when this might happen depends on the provider. Ultimately, if you continue to miss your bill payments, your credit score could be affected.

The CFPB has suggestions if you want to try to negotiate payment terms with a debt collector.

Do medical bills affect your credit score?

Once a medical provider turns your debt over to a collection agency, the CFPB says it’s likely to hurt your credit score. And the debt can stay on your credit report for up to seven years.

On a brighter note, the three main credit bureaus now give a grace period of 180 days between receiving the debt report and adding it to your credit reports, giving you a little more time to pay it back before the medical debt affects your score. But remember, you’re still responsible for paying what’s owed.

If you’re worried about how medical debt is affecting your credit score, you can get a free credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus every 12 months. 

And with CreditWise from Capital One, you can access your free TransUnion® credit report and VantageScore® 3.0 credit score anytime without negatively impacting your score. CreditWise is free and available to everyone—not just Capital One customers.

How to pay your medical bills in a nutshell

Accidents and illness, unfortunately, are an unavoidable part of life—and so are the expenses that come with them. It might seem as though your medical bill is final once you receive it, but that might not always be the case. 

While no one wants to find themselves sick or in debt, there are options you can explore to get help and reduce your medical bills. You may be able to negotiate a lower rate and flexible payment terms—or you might be able to seek assistance with your bills through your health care provider or private organizations.

If you’re out of work, these health insurance options for unemployed individuals might be helpful. 

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