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A report from the American Journal of Medicine shared some sad statistics about the state of American medical care and medical bankruptcies: A 2009 study revealed that 62.1% of U.S. bankruptcies had a medical cause that year. That figure is in stark contrast to 1981, when only 8% of bankruptcies listed medical debt as a root cause.
Some good news may be on the way, however. Consumer Reports revealed that personal bankruptcies dropped 50% from 2010 to 2016, presumably due to the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or ACA, along with an improving economy.
Unfortunately, Obamacare hasn’t solved all of American’s healthcare woes, as it hasn’t been able to fix the underlying cause of medical debt: the astronomical cost of healthcare in America. We spend more on healthcare per capita than any country in the world. As PBS reported last year, the amount of money spent on healthcare in the U.S. surpassed $10,000 per person – a new record.
Big Medical Bills in the Post-ACA Era
Part of the problem is just how complex and expensive the healthcare system is, says consumer protection lawyer and advocate SaraEllen Hutchinson. Obviously, catastrophic accidents can cause huge medical bills – and the hugeness is often a result of bills coming from multiple different sources.
“The ambulance, hospital, surgeon, anesthesiologist or nurse anesthetist, labs, and x-ray film readers all are different businesses with separate bills,” says Hutchinson. “Some of them may be in your insurance network, and some of them are not.”
If you’re unconscious in an ER and they’re working to save your life, chasing them all down to find out what insurance is going to pay for and what’s considered your out-of-pocket obligation is probably not your first priority.
“You will probably have to track them down later,” she says. But, by then, the damage has already been done. And while you can end up with astronomical medical bills if you’re uninsured or underinsured, you can quickly rack up thousands of dollars in medical expenses even if you have health insurance. The bigger your medical bills, the more you’ll need to pay, whether you have health insurance or not.
“Insurance is not like a health club membership where you can go and use everything you want for one monthly fee,” she says. “When you buy insurance for driving your car, you don’t get reimbursed for your gasoline or oil changes. And if you crash, you pay your deductible before the insurance kicks in.”
And while Obamacare has helped many people get access to health insurance, the premiums and deductibles can be excessive on their own. For 2017, the maximum out-of-pocket limits for ACA plans worked out to $7,150 for individuals and $14,300 for families.
If you’re living paycheck to paycheck – or worse, suffering from a reduced income due to your injury or illness — that might as well be a million dollars.
If you’re dealing with insurmountable medical bills, it’s important to know your rights, as well as which resources might help the situation. Here are some of the best tips for anyone trying to overcome massive medical bills or debt, straight from Hutchinson and other experts:
#1: Make sure all bills and statements are correct!
All around the web, you can find examples of situations where medical bills were just plain wrong. Sometimes, people are charged for procedures they didn’t even have, or charged astronomical sums for simple procedures or supplies by accident. Other times, the insurance company bungles the claim and asks you to pay for covered services or amounts over your annual out-of-pocket max.
According to Rachael Norman, founder and CEO of GetBetter.co, your first step with all medical bills should be looking them over for accuracy. If you’re unsure what anything means, you can call your hospital or medical office and ask for a description of each service, too.
From there, it’s always a good idea to check with your insurance and make sure that the amount shown on the bill takes into account any payments and discounts from your insurance policy. Lastly, check that the bill was processed correctly by your insurance company, says Norman.
“Ask your insurance company to review with you what they paid and check to see if any errors were made,” she says. “Many medical bills are coded incorrectly. These mistakes can result in your insurance paying less than they…