Millions of Americans Have Medical Debt in Collections — What Can You Do to Avoid It?

A hospital bill for $36,000 with a line item of various charges is photographed with a very shallow depth of field.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on Americans’ ability to pay for health care, having contributed to both rising medical costs and economic uncertainty. One result is that many households have either had to go into medical debt or forego needed medical treatment.

See: New Ways To Protect Yourself From Surprise Medical Bills
Find: Medical Expenses You Can Deduct From Your Taxes

Nearly one-third of Americans say they have not sought treatment for a health problem in the previous three months due to cost, according to the new “2021 Healthcare in America Report” from Gallup, which surveyed more than 6,600 U.S. adults.

That percentage has tripled since March.

Even among wealthier households — those that earn more than $120,000 a year — about one-fifth of respondents didn’t seek care in the previous three months because of costs, up from about 3% in March and 5% in June. One-fifth of respondents (21%) also say that they or a member of their household had a health problem worsen after postponing care because of cost.

Make Your Money Work for You

Credit Karma, a consumer technology platform with more than 120 million members, reports that nearly 23 million of its members currently hold $47.6 billion of medical debt in collections. That’s actually an improvement from September, when $48.6 billion in medical debt was recorded — a possible sign that even more people are forgoing medical care to avoid costly bills, according to an email sent to GOBankingRates from a Credit Karma spokesperson.

So, what can you do to save money on healthcare costs and avoid having your medical bills sent into collections?

One thing Credit Karma suggests is taking advantage of potential tax breaks that let Americans with high medical expenses take a deduction to reduce their tax bills. For 2021 taxes filed in 2022, the IRS lets you deduct qualified unreimbursed medical care expenses that exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income (AGI).

All qualified medical expenses can be found online at the IRS website. But examples of qualified unreimbursed medical expenses include preventative care, surgeries, visits to psychologist and psychiatrist offices, payments for prescription medications, and even travel and lodging expenses when traveling to seek care.

Make Your Money Work for You

See: How To Tackle Paying Off Unexpected Medical Debt
Find: Healthcare Expense Mistakes To Avoid

Meanwhile, here are some tips Credit Karma offers to keep your medical bills from being sent to collections:

  • Know what your health insurance will and won’t cover. If you have health insurance, familiarize yourself with your plan so you know what it does and doesn’t cover. This can help you avoid unexpected expenses, such as visiting an out-of-network doctor. Even if you don’t have insurance, ask ahead about how much you can expect to be charged, even if it’s just an estimate.
  • Review and hold onto your medical bills. This can help you identify potential mistakes. If you had a procedure or visited your doctor but never got a bill, contact your healthcare provider to ensure they have the correct address or contact information on hand.
  • Try negotiating your bill. If you don’t have insurance, or your insurance won’t cover a particular procedure, it might be worth negotiating a lower cost or at least a payment arrangement before you undergo treatment. Online resources such as Healthcare Bluebook let you compare what you’ll be charged to prices from other providers in your area
  • Request a payment plan. Ask the hospital or medical provider to propose a payment plan so you can pay your bills in a more manageable way.
  • Check your credit reports for suspicious behavior. If you notice a bill for a doctor’s appointment or hospital visit you never made, you can dispute the charges and get them removed from your credit reports.

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About the Author

Vance Cariaga is a London-based writer, editor and journalist who previously held staff positions at Investor’s Business Daily, The Charlotte Business Journal and The Charlotte Observer. His work also appeared in Charlotte Magazine, Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal and Business North Carolina magazine. He holds a B.A. in English from Appalachian State University and studied journalism at the University of South Carolina. His reporting earned awards from the North Carolina Press Association, the Green Eyeshade Awards and AlterNet. In addition to journalism, he has worked in banking, accounting and restaurant management. A native of North Carolina who also writes fiction, Vance’s short story, “Saint Christopher,” placed second in the 2019 Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition. Two of his short stories appear in With One Eye on the Cows, an anthology published by Ad Hoc Fiction in 2019. His debut novel, Voodoo Hideaway, was published in 2021 by Atmosphere Press.

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